Is student achievement data a hammer or a flashlight?
Clearly student achievement data provides information. It identifies student performance on a variety of assessments. We get state assessments like the MEAP. We get national assessments like the NWEA. We even have teacher created assessments.
All provide insight into student performance. But how are we supposed to use the information that these assessments provide?
The obvious answer, to me at least, is that I want student achievement data to be a flashlight. I want to use data to help people see, to light the way, to help illuminate things that otherwise would not be seen.
Using data as a flashlight also lessens data as a threat. People - administrators, students, teachers, parents, and community members - come to see that we are trying to use data to move forward. We are not interested in punishing people. We want to use data to help us find answers.
But data, truthfully, is a hammer. It is a hammer because people personalize it. Results are seen as a direct reflection on them. Teachers see it as a reflection on their teaching. Students see it as a reflection on who they are, not as a chance to take a pulse check. Parents see it as a reflection on them as a person and a referendum on their parenting.
Data is also a hammer because states are mandating that we make judgements about people using data. Data becomes one of the measures that we are required to use in evaluations. We rate teachers effective or ineffective based, in part, on data.
Data used in this way becomes a hammer.
But this must change. Student achievement data must be seen as a flashlight. Data gives information. With information we can see a way forward.
Student achievement data allows us to ask questions. Does the achievement of the students reflect their ability? Why or why not? How does the student achievement data give you insight into your own instructional practice? What is working? What doesn't work?
These questions are asked not to point fingers and assign blame. Instead the questions are asked to guide us. The questions light the way. Helping all of us to improve. A flashlight not a hammer.
Those of us in leadership have to make a conscious and deliberate effort to communicate that we believe data is a flashlight. It provides insight. In our conversations, in our writing, in our off-handed commentary we must make sure that our message is consistent - data is a flashlight.