Teachers question use of statistics

Nov. 11, 2008, midnight | By David Meyer | 13 years, 2 months ago

Schools expand the collection and use of data

An increased use of statistics in regards to achievement has led to frustration among some teachers.

County schools have seen an expansion in the collection and use of data since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, according to MCPS Chief Academic Officer Jody Leleck. But while Leleck and many in the central office perceive this as a beneficial trend towards increased accountability and academic performance, some teachers have expressed doubts.

'A plethora of data'
Signed into law by President Bush in 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) set standards and regulations schools had to meet in order to receive federal aid. The law's goal is 100 percent proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014, requiring schools to pass certain benchmarks of improvement each year. According to Leleck, this push for achievement has required school systems to conduct more research into specific student groups.

MCPS compiles data through state standardized tests, standardized summative assessment and final exam scores, the PSAT and various surveys. Leleck said that the statistics are intended to guide the school system in making effective and informed decisions to improve student performance across racial, socio-economic and academic subgroups. "You have to know where everybody is and you have to move forward," she said. "Data is behind everything we do - and it has to be."

Leleck said that by conducting in-depth research into the performance of specific groups, the system can pinpoint problems and find solutions. "We have to look at the fact that, 'Are we a successful system for all kids or just some kids?'" she said.

Though MCPS has been compiling such statistics for many years, Leleck said that the NCLB has resulted in increased data. "We almost have a plethora of data now," she said. "That's a really good thing."

Teacher frustration
However, some teachers and community members question the system's focus on data, which they view as excessive. Social studies resource teacher George Vlasits, who has been working with the Equity in Education Coalition to push reforms of the school system's tracking policy, is especially critical of the trend. "We are under increasing pressure to meet certain goals in terms of data that do not correlate in any way to instruction or learning," he said. "This is the bureaucratic approach - that we have sets and data that are going to be our criteria for education."

As an example, Vlasits cited MCPS' push to move more students up to Advanced Placement and honors courses. While the county's intention, Leleck said, is to ensure that more students are prepared for college, Vlasits believes the result has been the opposite: As more students have entered higher-level classes, the rigorousness of the course has declined.

While Leleck stressed the importance of the data in tracking and increasing student performance, she conceded that the data would never be capable of tracking everything. "In the educational system, it's impossible to have all the data," she said.

HSAs as the problem
The High School Assessments (HSAs), administered in four subjects, have especially garnered criticism from county teachers. In addition to being the measure for Adequate Yearly Progress under NCLB, as of this year all students must pass the exams in order to graduate.

According to Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) — MCPS' teachers union — teachers are growing frustrated with what they view as the HSAs' negative impact on teaching. "There's such a push to have kids do well on their tests that the curriculum becomes all about them," he said. "What we have heard from teachers are growing concerns over devoting so much instruction to these tests."

Vlasits said that the focus on the tests has detracted from classroom instruction. "We [talk about] the idea of 'lifelong learners,' but that's not what the system seeks to produce," he said. "It produces test takers."

Government teacher David Swaney said that although he approves of HSAs, the expansive state curriculum denies him the freedom he would like in instruction. "There's very little room or time to veer into something else or our students don't do well on the test," he said. "I understand it's important information for the state to know, but there's things I would cut out [from the tests]."

Israel said that MCEA has been working with a coalition of local organizations, including the Montgomery County Education Forum, to "fix" the HSAs and reduce their impact on classroom instruction, which they view as harming rather than improving education.

Leleck, though, defended the collection of data as necessary in helping MCPS achieve its goals for students. "If you don't know how you're doing, how are you going to know where you need to be?" she said. According to Leleck, next year, MCPS will release a system that will allow teachers to view statistics to modify classroom instruction.

Some teachers welcome the data collection. Algebra teacher Maria Costello said that an MCPS program called Achievement Series, in which students take county-administered tests whose results are then sorted for teachers, has made it easier to analyze data. Before, she created her own spreadsheets, but Achievement Series has made it easier for her to find where students are struggling.

Leleck stressed the purpose of the data as a guide, not a solution, to targeting students most in need. "You can look at data and use it as a finger-pointing thing, but that's not going to work," she said. "When you look at data, you need to act on it."

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