Use Statistics Responsibly!

I spent yesterday afternoon compiling statistics on the gap/growth rate of our school’s ELA students for reading and language MAP tests.  Heady stuff.  I compared their spring scores to their winter scores and determined the average increase/decrease in proficiency rates. This sort of data is more necessary than ever in today’s world of teaching.  Principals demand it because districts demand it because state government demands it because federal government demands it.

The sad thing is that I doubt seriously the government officials have the slightest idea the amount of time it takes to compile these numbers. It may be they think that teachers can wiggle their noses just as Sabrina did on Bewitched and produce usable statistics. Or they may think that we have plenty of time to do that during the school day.  In reality, those stats are compiled after school when I should be working with students, late nights when I should be grading students’ writing and giving them meaningful feedback, on Saturday and Sundays when I should be planning lessons or actually taking a well deserved break, and on the snowdays because I actually… have… time.

It is even sadder that all too often, these numbers are used to publicly flog teachers, administrators, schools, and school districts in the public square – especially around election time.  The state and federal government use these numbers to hammer schools over the head, labeling them as under performing,  thereby justifying their belief that teachers must be inept and lazy.  This type of adversarial relationship makes teachers leery of trying new things, straying too far from the state tests, or developing creative, engaging lessons that, quite honestly, may or may not be successful.

If we are going to use statistics to help students grow, I think it would be better to remove punitive consequences.  This would allow teachers to freekt examine the data and use it to inform their instruction without fear of reprisal should a new strategy they try fail miserably.  Because students are not widgets, one size fits all does not work!  That is one reason I love teaching.  Every child is different. What works with one doesn’t work with another.  Each child is a new, special being.  It is my job to figure out how best to help each one of them learn.  Sometime, it is a connection to an interest they have.  Sometimes, it is a genuine compliment at a specific moment in class or at one of their games.  Sometimes, it is a straight up no-holds-barred come to Jesus moment and a good swift kick in the pants (metaphorically speaking, of course).  What teachers do is give each child what they need to the best of their abilities in the time they have. And yes, sometimes, it is looking at and analyzing statistics helps us do that better.

So when is analyzing statistics worthwhile?  For me, it is when I am searching for answers as to why learning is or is not occurring in my classroom. For example, when I analyzed the increase/decrease of students who were proficient on the reading and language MAP tests, I didn’t like what I saw. I had two classes whose proficiency rates dropped dramatically in reading and language.  I had one class who increased.  I had to find out why, so I went to the very students who took the test and simply asked.  Students are extraordinarily candid in their answers, and if we as teachers listen to their voices (as uncomfortable as that might be to our egos), it is shocking how quickly we can uncover the problems in our instruction.

After talking to several students whose scores had dropped in one class, a light bulb went off in my head.  I noticed those who didn’t increase were my higher level performers.   They weren’t being challenged.  How could I not see that before?Because… this class has a lot of emerging readers and writers.  My higher level kids were having to sit through lessons they already grasped.  This class needs lots of remedial, explicit instruction with a lot of repetitive practice; however, this was leaving my higher level students out in the cold when it came to their needs.  I still don’t know how I will best reach those kids, but at least I see why those scores came back the way they did.  Anytime, I can push that group of students to the next level, I will this second semester.

I must brag on my emerging readers and writers in this class.  Most of them made phenomenal gains – some of the highest gains in all of my classes; yet those gains were not enough to put them in the proficient category.  In fact, they still don’t come close to “proficient.” Hmmm….how fair is it to dock a child’s growth (or his or her teacher) if a student improves (often dramatically), but that improvement isn’t enough to make them “proficient?” Unfair.  Very unfair.

In my other class whose proficiency rates decreased, the students shared specific types of questions with me that threw them on the test.  They stated there were many questions dealing with Greek and Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes and that the reading was really challenging.  Again, the light bulb inside my head glowed.  I wasn’t having them read challenging enough text for their level.  This class is easier to fix as I need to present them with more challenging texts to analyze in the upcoming semester.   The challenge here is to prepare completely different texts for this class than what I will use for my other two.  They are ready for texts written at 9th or 10th grade level.  They must be challenged in the same way my emerging readers struggle with 4th or 5th grade text.  The answers became clear after meeting with those students.

This, for me, the responsible way to use statistics is to figure out how to move a student forward, not what did the teacher do wrong.  I guarantee I do many things wrong.  I am human.  I am blessed that I old enough now and confident enough in my skills to use the statistics in this way without worrying about how those statistics might be used against me.  But that certainly was not always the case.  My ego used to be heavily invested in those scores, and it is only recently that I have come to the realization that those scores are important, but they are not the most important thing I should worry about.  My kids’ growth is not solely determined by a set of numbers on a page.   There are many, many other factors, and their growth cannot be boiled down to a simple set of numbers.

It disheartens me when I hear those numbers used to beat the creativity out of some amazing younger teachers.  Don’t lose heart teachers.  Use statistics to help you reflect on your teaching.  Keep your eyes firmly fixed on your students and their needs, for that is really all that matters.  Ask yourself these questions if you are an ELA teacher:  Are my students better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners now?  How do I know this?  Are my students better critical thinkers now?  How do I know this?  Are my students better off for having been in my classroom?  How do I know this?  If you can honestly deliver solid answers to these questions when you are searching your soul at night when nobody is looking, then rest assured –  you are using statistics responsibly.

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