Every educator has their own ingrained beliefs about standardized testing; the time spent preparing for teaching format, ensuring students have the content that is being tested, the time actually spent giving the test. Ask almost any educator and most likely you will hear some negative beliefs about testing. The reality is though, that no matter what our beliefs are regarding testing, we must shift our focus and our teacher’s focus away from beliefs to a focus on behaviors. Our schools, school districts, teachers, and our State is held accountable for how well students perform on the MSTEP. What do we do to shift the conversation and ensure we are doing what is best for our student learners?
In his book, What Great Principals Do Differently 18 Things That Matter Most, Todd Whitaker states that “great principals keep standardized testing in perspective and focus on the real issue of student learning.” In a study of principals who led schools that exceeded expectations on standardized tests, (Turner 2002) found that these principals did not believe in the value of testing more than others, they just understood the importance of test results. They were fully aware that success on standardized tests brought their school greater autonomy to do what they believed was best for students. These effective principals also saw student achievement in a broader sense, not just relying on academic test scores, but on social/emotional skills, self-worth, responsibility, behavior, involvement in schools, etc. The WHOLE child!
When I was first a principal almost 20 years ago test scores were printed in the paper and districts were ranked with others in the county area as to performance. No information was provided regarding demographics, poverty levels, or typical at-risk factors. Invariably our discussion at an administrative meeting centered around where our district performed according to other school districts in the area. If we were ranked high or number one, we kept doing what we were doing, if our scores slipped we did something about it. Over time, we were taught to disaggregate data and look at trends and find student demographics that needed focus, intervention, and curriculum and content that needed attention. We set goals on our School Improvement reports to address the deficits and teaching skills and strategies became a focus as we moved teachers out of their “boutiques” and worked toward sharing best practices found in classrooms where results on student learning were soaring.
I was never and am still not a data geek. I don’t have the propensity to do the Excel spreadsheet forms, study trends, and figure out what the data is telling me. I need someone to interpret that for me. Technology tools today have made this so much easier and in a very visual fashion! In most of our schools, there are leaders like me and many teachers who do not understand data and how to best use it. One of the principals I mentored from Alabama would always say to me, “Derek, the data don’t lie!” I understand the importance of data and so do other effective leaders and educators, but how can we help people like me understand these charts and graphs and what they mean?
The Reading Now Network has an answer for you! Their newest interactive RNN Data Tool visually plots every school in the State of Michigan and individual ELA and Math MSTEP scores on a visual graph. It shows those schools that are scoring above the state average and those who are scoring below. It also takes into account the demographics of the school from absenteeism, socio-economic status, number of LEA students and other at-risk factors. The schools are clustered in like cohort groups which allow for leaders to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges so to speak. (Remember when test scores were just printed in the paper? You were ranked according to the score, not the factors impacting the score). The RNN Data Tool allows for a principal and teacher teams to study outliers and others who have successfully changed behaviors in their school to exceed expectations on the MSTEP so they can learn about best practices and behaviors that shift the focus away from beliefs to a focus on student learning.
You can find the RNN Data Tool at the Practical School Improvement Timeline for Michigan site. The newest iteration of the tool focuses on four years of ELA and Math MSTEP data weighted according to “at-risk” factors-poverty and absenteeism for example. You can search by ISD, district, your own individual school and compare your growth using “residual factors” that do a much better job of showing the amount of growth you have achieved vs a plain average as compared to the state average. Comparing like cohort groups allows for the opportunity to learn from the success of others as outliers.
My colleague in the High Impact Leadership Project (HIL Project) Doug Greer, Ph.D., Ottawa ISD School Improvement Consultant and data guru ensures through an informational video that even the most challenged data person like me can understand how to use the charts, graphs, and data tables. How to understand them, what they measure, how to compare your school scores over time with others. Most importantly, how you can surface trends of success that will help you celebrate where you have come from, in order to move you to your desired state. You can find his explanatory video on the Practical School Improvement Timeline for Michigan site here: Overview of 2019 RNN Data Tool
Understanding data, what it means, an honest appraisal of where we stand with others in our cohort groups is a necessary start. Now comes the hard part of moving our school toward success. As Whitaker states, “Standardized tests measure only a part of what schools should be doing. Effective leaders focus on the behaviors that lead to success, not the beliefs that stand in the way of it. Effective principals don’t let standardized tests take over the entire school.”