José Banda Follows Maria Goodloe-Johnson Down the 'Data' Rabbit Hole

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New Seattle Schools Superintendent José Banda is starting off saying he wants to go slow. That should play well to the many parents and teachers who felt former superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson charged ahead on her own agenda without stopping to listen. But there is one thing Banda has in common with his predecessor.

He believes in "data," which as school started this week he said the district would use in ever more sophisticated ways. It's perhaps understandable why education technocrats have jumped on the data bandwagon. The idea conveys science and progress, a notion that what you're doing is based on indisputable "evidence" rather than the latest teaching fad.

Unfortunately, the love of data is a fad in itself, as is its corollary--testing, lots of it-- since data doesn't come from nowhere. Under Goodloe-Johnson, the district instituted the thrice-yearly MAP test, run by a non-profit on whose board she sat. That's on top of the annual test instituted by the state. The tests have sometimes been almost back to back, causing many teachers to grumble about losing weeks of actual instruction time.

Banda now says he plans to help teachers use the test results more productively. Eric Anderson, who manages research, evaluation and assessments for SPS, tells SW the district is planning on expanding a Web-based "Academic Data Warehouse" it has been developing. The database currently contains MAP scores, and will soon include state test results. He says teachers will be trained in how to use the system, and could, for instance, see MAP and state test results side by side, not just for an individual but for an entire class or grade.

Whether that will actually give teachers useful information is arguable, however. Administrators like to say that all that testing, in particular with MAP, gives teachers a way to monitor kids' progress throughout the year. But most teachers I've met don't seem very interested in MAP scores, in part because they don't know what's on the test or how it aligns with what they're teaching.

So why did many schools opt to continue with three MAP tests a year when they were given the option last year of ditching the fall test?

One teacher explained to me that his colleagues voted to do so because they were concerned that if they didn't have test results from the beginning of the year, they couldn't show progress by the end of the year. This is a newly important issue, because student test scores results are being incorporated into teacher evaluations (another fad). Losing class time and making kids sit through a dubiously useful test, all so teachers can protect themselves, it's a sad commentary on the state of affairs.

And now the district plans to pilot yet another test, Anderson tells SW. At least this one will be tied explicitly to state standards . Anderson says the so-called "benchmark assessments" come from the state Office of Student Instruction.

Over the summer, the district told school administrators about the test and invited applications to participate. The district will choose 10 to 15 schools for the pilot.

Anderson stresses that this test is voluntary. "We are not pushing this as a district mandate, so if this is too much testing for [a school's staff], that's their decision" he says. Some schools, he says, really do find test results useful and want to take what he calls "data-driven instruction" to the next level.

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