The Numbers that Almost Never Make their Way into the Data

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Government officials measure. They measure their measurements against past measurements. No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) data-based approach always had more in common with tax accounting than education, and beleaguered teachers could only watch while NCLB led to education-by-spreadsheet, spreadsheets of test scores having become defining measures of school quality. Unfortunately, while NCLB itself has technically exited the scene — leaving little or no progress behind — that measuring goes on. State departments of education hired so many people to measure, record measurements, and assess measurements that the measuring probably cannot stop without massive layoffs in government education departments throughout the nation.

In the meantime, educational administrators in “underscoring” districts do not and frequently cannot take a long-term view of the educational process. These administrators and sometimes teachers may be anxiously trying to hold on to jobs that depend on showing elevated test scores. Our understandable, but too-often frantic, efforts to push up math and English scores at all costs are natural consequences.

In the meantime, the faces behind America’s test numbers go unseen and unrecognized. Has a district doubled its English-language learner population? Have funding losses led to increased class sizes as teachers and paraprofessionals were laid off? Has a district been forced to cut back on tutoring and other interventions because of funding or staff losses? Those numbers may not get counted, yet those numbers are crucial to understanding what is happening.

One difference that passes mostly unnoticed between wealthier and financially-disadvantaged districts can be seen in the number of qualified paraprofessionals in a district. A shortage of English or math teachers will be noticed, but a shortage of paraprofessionals seldom hits the radar. In District A, one paraprofessional may be working with six disabled children, while in District B, each of six lucky children have the good fortune to receive their own aides.  That one fact has the potential to hugely skew test scores from school to school, but will not be factored into comparisons of final test scores.

The socioeconomic status, early educational experiences, rate of vocabulary acquisition, and family situations of America’s many students form a patchwork mosaic of readiness for school and learning. Our picture has only become more complex as this country continues to diversify. We ought to at least acknowledge the power of finances, family and language background.

Yet only final test scores will be counted by state and federal government educational accountants.



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