SBAC: Data but no meaning, when meaning matters most

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I can still feel the slap of his small leather batting glove in the palm of my hand as he rounded first base.  By the time he reached home plate, occasionally touching the ground in route, my 8-year-old son, Owen, and I shared a moment that cannot truly be captured by words, and by no means, captured by numbers.

Owen hit a grand slam …over the fence… in a baseball tournament watched by a generous crowd of his closest friends and teammates.  A volcanic eruption of joy.  An eternal moment between a father and son.  The slap of our hands in mid-flight, a celebration marked by a selfless love that can only be felt by a parent.

Owens grand slamAlthough we possess a breathtaking picture, a moment frozen in time, the depth of pride and mutual excitement can never be held or touched, nor could it ever be quantified.

A boy clutching his dad.  A boundless, timeless, indescribable bond.

Moments like this define us in profound ways, big and small.  Their meaning deepens as a result of context.  It deepens as a result of the story behind the moment. Viewed in isolation, with a faceless boy and faceless adult, this moment loses all of its meaning.  In a sense, this moment can be dehumanized with numbers and symbols replacing the faces and stories, with callous disregard for the humanity that makes us whole.  For it is the stories themselves that give life and meaning to numbers.

Yet the educational community –the very field that finds its existence in the care and welfare of children, particularly where “the story” matters most — continues to kneel and bow at the altar of big data, any data that can be captured, with flagrant disregard for its importance or meaning.

Nevertheless, that which is easiest to count, may very well be the least meaningful or important to count.  For you can count how many times I tell my children I love them, but you cannot quantify how much I love them, nor, without context, does the number you count represent the depth of sacrifice and denial of self that characterizes a parent’s primal love for their child. In these circumstances, the very act of counting, without regard for the story or context, has the chilling effect of dehumanizing.

Sadly, too many teachers have been trapped in mindless data exercises that irresponsibly neglect the story behind the numbers, turning children into faceless numbers… hence dehumanizing the sacred process of fostering the growth and development of our children.

Perhaps it is true that no profound, complex problem in human history has been solved without data, quantitative or qualitative.  Yet, decades ago, eminent scholar and “father of quality,” Dr. W. Edwards Deming identified “management by use only of visible figures, with little or no consideration of figures that are unknown or unknowable” as one of his seven “deadly diseases” of management.

This reveals a very critical consideration when looking at data, you must understand the system, and perhaps more importantly, the context or story, that generated the data. This poses yet another warning from Dr. Deming, namely, that “Statistical calculations based on warped figures lead to confusion, frustration and wrong decisions.”

These wise words are most timely as the educational community awaits the next batch of big data to be delivered, the results of the latest test promising to revolutionize schooling, the SBAC.  A hollow promise, based on warped figures, that will certainly deliver hollow results.

What will the SBAC data mean?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing at all. Numbers in isolation, lacking story and context.

But, worse yet, numbers based on a specious assessment that will in time suffer and die from a credibility crisis.  Sadly, some communities will be asked to explain why this one indicator supersedes volumes of contextual data that form a completely different narrative and tell another story entirely.  How could it be that SAT and ACT scores, as well as college admissions rates and college success, do not align with the “college and career readiness” measure of the SBAC?

What are parents to believe, the SBAC results, or their own lying eyes?  Assuredly, there will be contorting and spinning of the results, primarily to serve and indulge the special interests of adults, which has the insidious effect of exploiting children.  In the end, after the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars, the data will be meaningless, empty, and faceless.

Data is meaningless without context, without a story.  Consequential data based on a spurious assessment is dangerous.  However, meaning deepens as a result of context, as a result of the story behind a given moment. A dad clutching his boy.  A boundless, timeless, indescribable bond.  For it is the stories themselves that give life and meaning to numbers.

Thomas R. Scarice is the superintendent of the Madison Public Schools.

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