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.”