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The Quantified Student

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By Sujata G. Bhatt

A year ago, in the Washington Post, I wrote a blog post called "I am a Bad Teacher," in which I questioned education reform's push for standardized test data. A lot has happened since then.

After writing the piece, I decided not to focus on adapting my students to the test, but rather on using the test's requirements to meet my students' needs.

Their needs are many. I teach in Los Angeles at a Title 1 school. My students are largely English language learners, and our school is dotted and dashed with its share of poverty-related urgencies. In the fall of 2010, my fourth grade class had come to me particularly unprepared. Reading, writing, subtraction, multiplication facts, focusing, doing homework, not throwing paper balls at random moments mid-class: all this was a revelation to many of them (and not one they welcomed).

Since California's standardized test for fourth graders measured skills almost all my students needed, I analyzed its requirements, broke them down into core concepts, and then worked and reworked these concepts with the students until they felt a sense of mastery over them. My daily job consisted of finding different, creative ways of approaching, teaching, and reteaching the same core skills so that most all students could incorporate them into their cognitive toolkits.

It worked. The students succeeded wildly. They returned to me for fifth grade with heightened confidence. They saw something new in themselves: the reward of effort and the joy of success.

But there was also something more. They came back to me curious about numbers and stats. They wanted to know how many more points it would take to get to the next level, how many more problems they'd need to get right to get those points. They had begun to look at the test as they would a game, and they were invested in it. Even more than that, they understood that because every fourth grade public school kid in the state had taken this very test, they could measure themselves against their peers. Suddenly, their view of the world became that much bigger. Testing had begun the process of networking them into the world beyond our little schoolyard.

I watched these discoveries unfold, and I learned that students could gain something from standardized tests, data, and metrics. These things could be tools for students as much as they were tools for us adults.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between socio-economic status and test scores. I don't think there's anyone who would deny that. But does this mean that we as teachers can't do anything until we solve the underlying social problems that lead to disparate opportunities and achievement?

I don't think so. I think it means we have to do two things at once.

We must -- no question -- change the political situation that, in California, spends $52,000 per year for each prison inmate and $7,500 for each K-12 student.

But I faced thirty-four fresh if slightly pimply faces every day last year. They couldn't afford to wait until we solve the problems of poverty. They needed to be engaged, taught, and networked into the system now -- and at the highest possible level. If we don't work together to create pathways for our students now, gangs and those budding hormones certainly will.

And I've come to believe that data is one way to do that.

Last year, working with the same cohort of students (by then fifth graders), I tried to find more learning opportunities that focused on data. We used math websites like TenMarks that enable students to learn about their own learning even as they practice new skills. We analyzed information graphics and dove into ways of presenting numerical information. We explored how numbers shape our understanding of ourselves and the world. And much of their enthusiasm and curiosity for these tasks came out of their interest in numbers from standardized testing.

I've thus come to believe there's a role for standardized testing within education. As a limited portion of a multiple measure evaluation system, it helps teachers understand how well we've taught over the course of a year. It also helps students understand how much they mastered over that year and makes them agents in their own learning.

Much work still needs to be done to improve both testing and test-based evaluation measures. There are silly, decontextualized "pineapple" questions, as we've seen in very public controversies this year. There are too many interim tests created by districts to lead up to the state tests. Students must have a stake in the tests for the results to have meaning. Growth or "value-added" models must take into account more variables such as English Language level and attendance. Stringent testing integrity procedures must be put into place. Tests and course materials must overlap better.

But what I learned from my students over the past year is that it makes more sense for me to work to create better data than to fight data. Data analysis is an increasingly significant and empowering way of making sense of the world. All sorts of professions use data to interpret their work and decide upon courses of action. Why shouldn't we in education?

In the high tech world there's a growing movement called "The Quantified Self." With quantified self models, adults use data to change habits and behaviors--to lose weight, exercise more, to calm themselves. I think our kids already think this way. They like learning about their learning. And standardized tests are but one of many ways they can do that. As teachers, perhaps we can learn this way of looking at the world from our students. Why not take advantage of it? And most importantly, why not help our students become makers and masters of their own data, and help them use it to propel their own learning forward?

Sujata G. Bhatt is a National Board Certified teacher in her 11th year at Grand View Boulevard Elementary in Los Angeles Unified School District. She is a current Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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