“…and deliver us from ‘the data,’ for Thine is the kingdom…”

I teach eighth-grade English.

Last February I spent a training day with colleagues at our school district’s central office where a district official emphatically reminded us that our students’ reading scores are of paramount importance. If our students don’t show improvement from standardized test to standardized test, we were told, then teachers will be held accountable.”

At the end of the day I raised my hand and said, “We’ve been here about six hours and not once have we said or heard the word ‘creativity.’  Do we simply not care about our students’ creative capacities?”

I got this answer: “Well, we don’t have a metric that measures creativity. Next question?”

But do we, in fact, even have a metric that measures reading?

*  *  *

A few months earlier I had been in a bi-weekly meeting with my school’s administrator, our reading specialist, and other teachers of the same students I teach. We were reviewing a list of “struggling readers.”

Coming to the name of a particular student—let’s call her Bonita—we were told authoritatively that Bonita reads on a second-grade level.

“Wait! What?” I blurted.

I explained that in my class Bonita was independently reading a sixth-grade-level novel, was journaling about it intelligently, and, furthermore, was explaining the novel’s unfolding plot to me in weekly one-on-one conferences.

“Well,” I was told, “it says right here in the data that she reads at second-grade level.”

“The data.” Lately, I’ve begun to pray the Lord’s Prayer, but with “deliver us from evil” changed to “deliver us from ‘the data.’”  For in the case of reading assessments, the data is evil, because it works like this:

  • slice out 60-120 minutes of a child’s life (without regard for how she’s feeling physically or emotionally in that moment);
  • have the child read a block of text that has little if any relevance to her life;
  • test her comprehension with someone else’s questions and—get this—someone else’s multiple-choice answers (in others words, don’t dare give this child the chance to express her comprehension with her own passions and her own terms);
  • score the test, compare it to other scores and then label the child with that number.
  • Oh, and make sure that child and her parents see that number in comparison with others so that child may be accorded a place on a continuum of good-to-bad.

That, my friends, is “the data” from which I pray the Lord will deliver us.

*   *   *

Last week I learned that last year, according to “the data,” I did not sufficiently advance my students along the reading continuum. Thus, I’m told, I am failing—not in those words (we’re too nice for that) but “the data” is a master of inference. And its inferences always carry a moral tinge. Everyone—students, teachers, parents—on whom “the data” lays its grubby little hands will be judged as either good, fair, or bad.

Having received my judgment, I felt bad—real bad.  In fact I was demoralized. I began to scheme ways to retire as soon as possible. “I’m too old for this sh*t,” I told myself.

But suddenly a voice came to me, saying, “If you feel demoralized, how must Bonita have felt on hearing that she was an eighth-grader reading on a second-grade level?  How must her parents have felt?”

This made me angry—real angry. How dare “the data” do this to us?

I recalled Bonita sitting across from me with smiling wide eyes, her arms gesturing excitedly, while explaining the unfolding action in the novel she had just finished, while she inferred insights into the characters’ points-of-view. This novel was set in the midst of middle-school girl drama which was the world in which she lived. Later in the year she would write poetry about her world, and my pride in her would bring tears to my eyes.

But “the data” doesn’t give a damn about any of that, because “the data” has no capacity for human uniqueness, no appreciation of a child’s ability to gather impressions of the world around her and put them into words that stir her heart and the hearts of her readers.  “The data” just wants to judge in much the same way my students describe the incurably judgmental: “Haters gonna hate.”

So I am not going to let myself be demoralized or defined by “the data.” Instead I will remind myself every day that I have the privilege to share life with hundreds of unique 13- and 14-year-old human beings, each of whom brings curiosity and talent to my classroom.

And so I swear I will refuse to worship “the data.” I will refuse to “standardize” my students. I will not tell them what “the data” declares they ought to be. I will instead ask them what they want to be, and I’ll do my damnedest to help get them there.

For in my theology, one cannot serve God and “the data.”  So, to “the data” I say, “Get thee behind me.”




6 responses to ““…and deliver us from ‘the data,’ for Thine is the kingdom…””

  1. As a child who read at 3 years old, who read voraciously all her life, and who still reads for pleasure all the time– I did not have the test scores high enough to get into Honors and AP classes at my college prep high school. I also had low SAT scores and had to re-take them to get into college. Yet I flew through college– getting a double BA, and my teaching degree, and made the Deans list just about every semester at my University. My son all of his life had an IEP for reading– yet he read all the time and could talk to you about books and characters and understand the symbols and metaphors within a text. He writes papers on his own without any help or guidance from his mother- who is now a professional writer– despite her lack of Honors/AP education and the low SAT scores. I hate tests, I think they tell us nothing except that you know how to take a test, but it’s the only way non-educators can quantify what we do in a classroom. They are a money making scam that states have bought into and are foolishly throwing money at– rather than throwing those same dollars at our kids and our classrooms. Thanks for writing this Gerald– it’s important that we start saying this about tests and data. Perhaps one day, someone who is spending all that money to test us– will hear us and believe what we are saying.

  2. One only needs to know my son and his life where I bucked the system when I was told he was unteachable and needed to be placed in a school with handicap children. You know his story. 3 years ago I adopted the special Ed high school class at mcadory with color pages, gel pens and all the good supplies that were not from Dollar General. It has opened doors for some of these kids who never realized the talent they possess when given good tools and a cheerleader. Has definitely blessed me and their teacher says they now get through their main stream classes and do their work so they can color. Some have discovered talents no one had ever thought to challenge them on. Now they each have binders to store their work in and each has their own set of 100 good pens that I told them they could take home at end of year. The worst have become leaders and encourages for the class. Sometimes children definitely are different yet the system wants to lump them together. Yeah ….my unteachable kid has his second masters degree and is doing great things for the world. God is good and I am so glad to know you still buck the system. Good good story my friend. Suzy

  3. your theology is so true. i have been delving into deep theology and am realizing more and more how deep thinking theologians bring theology into the world in a way that helps free and redirect our consciousness to know the world in a very different way, in which data and standardization and technology driven education that replaces warm blooded teachers is false and driven by profit motives and business algorithms that come from a culture of empire and death. it is not education and fighting for education becomes a theologically sound thing to do. thank you for bringing this to light and sharing with others who need to have their spirit reaffirmed!!!

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