Wednesday, June 12, 2013

FISA courts, national security, and student testing: What's the connection?

What follows may be a stretch but hang with me. I think there is a connection.

Recently on NPR author Tim Weiner was interviewed about our national security program, the FISA court, and the recently revealed government surveillance program.

While interesting, none of what he said really related to my world until he said the following:

"Our capacity to collect (information) far exceeds our capacity to analyze and act."

Bells and whistles went off in my head. This is part of the problem in American education. Everyone it seems wants to collect information. However, collecting information is not the most important part of what we do. The critical act for us is analyzing information, figuring out what the information is telling us.

In our district we have tried to streamline the information that we collect. We do benchmark assessments with the NWEA twice a year only. Aside from state assessments we try to limit other more formal assessments. The informal classroom based assessments are meant to provide more timely, focused information.

Some of the teachers, and most likely the principals, in my district might argue, some rather passionately, that we test students too much. In the first month of school we give both the NWEA and the MEAP (state required) assessments. We also administer the Fountas and Pinnell assessments. Throughout the year we also administer unit pre/post-tests, end of course or end of semester exams. We administer the MME (state required) assessments to 11th grade students that includes the ACT assessment. We also use the EXPLORE and PLAN assessments with our 9th and 10th grade students.

While that seems like a lot of assessment, the total time for the standardized assessments is less than 2% of student hours over the course of a year. Honestly, we use about the same amount of time lining up students at the end of the day.

I would not disagree that the best use of classroom instructional time is for instruction. However, an important component of effective instruction is understanding what students know and can do. That requires assessment. So at some level assessment needs to be given some time to occur over the course of the year.

The question is, as Mr. Weiner so eloquently put it, do we have the capacity to analyze and act?

I believe we have the capacity. In the case of education, an additional question is do we have the will?

I know that we have teachers and administrators who are willing to and who have the ability to look at data and see what is going on in the life of a child. \

But sometimes it is easier to rely on our hunches or our informal observations or our experience with a child. I would not disagree that those are important and valuable pieces of information. But the information we can gather from more formal assessments is also valuable. It gives us another perspective that can either help us confirm or reject what our more informal data collection has revealed.

Teaching, it has been said, is both art and science. We need to remember that as we try to sort through the data that we collect on our students. We cannot focus on the data to the exclusion of things we see in the classroom. We cannot focus on our classroom experience to the exclusion of what more standardized assessments tell us.

We must be better than those who collect data for national surveillance. They have become quite adept at collecting data. We have traveled a piece of that road. Now it is time to make sure that we are also prepared to analyze and use the data to help students learn.

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