The ability to access and make sense of educational data is important for many community members because knowing the challenges and successes of a school or a district helps inform their decision-making process. For instance, engaging with educational data may help a parent decide what school is right for their child, or help a school leader decide what needs in the school are most urgent and what previous changes have been the most helpful. Community members noted that educational data is often misused, as the agenda derived from the data does not always function in service of improving the experiences of families, educators, and students. Nearly ubiquitously, community members in these conversations asserted that when data becomes a weapon it loses its ability to facilitate positive school change. Many suggested increased transparency as a strategy to ensure that educational data does not function as a weapon to punish schools and individuals that are ‘performing poorly.’ Knowing how and why the data are being collected and what the strategy for making use of the data is creates an atmosphere where the analysis and collection of data feels ethical and useful in the pursuit of creating better schools.
Unfortunately, those with the technical capacity to produce and analyze educational data often forget that their audience expands beyond other educational experts. As the pool of individuals capable of making sense of the data shrinks, so does data’s utility for helping community members understand what’s happening in their schools and their districts. As one DPS alum put it, “I believe data should be accessible to whoever’s consuming it. Whether it be the average cost of homes or the number of students, it needs to be accessible and understood by whoever the audience is and not hidden for lack of a better term to tell a different story than folks want it to paint.”
Often in an effort to ensure that educational data has been appropriately collected and rigorously analyzed, those conducting and presenting the research end up producing something that is laden with academic jargon and complicated charts. This type of presentation does not always connect well with a broad audience. For instance, one mother noted it is important to keep in mind that not all parties interested in educational data are familiar with certain academic terms and conventions. One community member even suggested that educational data ought to be communicated in language that can be understood at around a middle-school reading level. For example when helping the public understand the makeup of the faculty of a school, “diversity of faculty could be changed to ‘the school has staff of color’.” Setting a data accessibility standard would allow educational data to be consumed by a broader audience and would also have the additional benefit of ensuring that a multi-generational audience could benefit from interacting with and understanding school data. Along with the reduction in academic jargon, community members suggested that simple graphics are key to ensuring educational data is intelligible to those who can benefit from its findings.
Like including understandable graphics, having data broken out into discrete categories can also help make educational data more digestible. Having one overall score which consolidates a variety of educational data points is not only confusing for many community members, it can produce misleading understandings of what is actually happening in schools. For instance, DPS currently provides a final rating for schools which is composed of points accumulated from a variety of categories. As one mother of a DPS student noted, “things that also help is if whatever is presented is not rolled up into a final score. Putting a label on the school and saying this school is in the top 20 percent or whatever you want to say – that is not fair and it does not allow people to see the school’s strengths and weaknesses.” Another community member noted that the current framework lends itself to that type of lack of intelligibility, especially for parents. As one school leader noted, “I don’t even know how many of our families knew or even cared what color we were on the SPF. I do think it matters when you’re recruiting because that’s the tool that everybody gives parents to know whether there’s a quality school or not, and I don’t know, but I think that status is not the driver for our families. I would say their growth, language development, and the actual lived experience of the student feels like the most important criteria for our families.”
One community member who is deeply invested in reimagining the role of data in DPS noted that in advocating for accessible and transparent data practices, they’ve surprisingly received a significant amount of pushback. As they put it, “it just infuriates us, just the pushback we see. Do you really want no visibility, no transparency into how schools are doing? Tell me how that benefits the children. How does that benefit the kids for there to be only the state assessment, that a school performance framework is based on a single test? Tell me how that helps the kids, I don’t understand.” Highlighting the importance of transparency in relation to educational data was a sentiment echoed by many community members. It seems that transparency in relation to educational data has tremendous instrumental value as it helps build trust that informing decision-making with educational data can result in better outcomes for both the students and the faculty.
Community members consistently communicated the need for educational data to be easily understood, accessible, and useful. As one DPS educator put it, “Data needs to be accessible. You do come across some data where you think whoever did this is clearly some type of statistical junkie and only people who are really good at statistics or whatever can really understand what’s being presented. If only a small fragment of the population understands the data that’s in front of them, then there’s no point in having the data.” Furthermore, some of the most important educational data are produced through research programs that adhere to academic conventions. This can make the findings from educational research jargon-heavy and not always available for public consumption. As one community member put it, “I feel like data is becoming more and more inaccessible because of academia and jargon. I’m not saying a fifty-page research paper isn’t needed to substantiate an argument but that’s a barrier because there may be valuable data there but with all the fluff and all the jargon you’re less likely to engage. So I think some sort of medium where people can like effectively understand the data and absorb it but also in like an accessible format.”
Increased access when coupled with a commitment to transparency allows community members to engage with educational data in genuine and productive ways. One Cherry Creek High School (CCHS) alum noted that educational data are often cropped to cut out undesirable data points. They suggested that “even if you can’t report every single piece of data, for instance, in your summary, I think it’s very important for the public to see every piece of data you had because a) it holds you accountable because you can’t omit things that didn’t support your narrative, and b) I think it provides a way for the public to understand what types of data you’re collecting and maybe build upon it and maybe improve it or fully understand the nature of the study.” A school leader noted that pairing quantitative data with additional context helps community members develop a more accurate and vivid impression of what is happening in a school. As she put it, with “public data you have to be thinking about the unintended consequences and the context and where do these schools have control and where do they not. Where are they making choices and where are they not for their kids.” She also noted that in the service of transparency, it is important to make sure those engaging with the data are aware of where the data they are seeing are coming from. This is especially important as sometimes different processes for collecting and analyzing data can produce contradictory conclusions; “we experienced systems warfare for years between the state system, the Denver system, and then the internal data that told us what our kids were doing every single day. For example, on the state [rating system] we were yellow but if you recall DPS had a matrix approach, they never did just one year. So if we had a good year, and we had any bad years coupled in front or behind it, it would hide all the growth the kids made. So while one system is telling us ‘hey, you’re doing what you need to be doing and you’re on the right path’, the other was telling you red and that one had more power. And none of them really told our story.”
It was pointed out over and over again that generally educational data are useful inasmuch as they provide insight into improving student experiences and outcomes. Shifting the focus from punishment to improvement, many community members suggest, will allow for conversations around data to become more productive and less hostile. One community member noted that the information about school performance derived from educational data, for instance, should be used for the purpose of “soft accountability.” As she put it, “this dashboard should not be used in any way, shape, or form to punish schools ever. But there’s going to be soft accountability. It’ll be publicly known that the teachers at this school don’t feel supported or heard. By amplifying the voice of everybody–students, parents, and faculty at schools–you then provide the opportunity for there to be this soft accountability. We should be paying attention to this school because that’s a weakness of theirs. But the heart behind that is not, we pay attention to that weakness of that school in order to bludgeon them. It’s in order to say they need more supports.”
One educator noted that some schools , especially those that serve a majority of marginalized students, can find themselves perpetually punished as a consequence of the current relationship between resource allocation and school assessment strategies. This heightened scrutiny can be unhelpful and also unfair. A CCHS alum noted that the desire to use educational data to find who is to “blame” often results in the consequence of misplacing the burden for changing undesirable outcomes and systematic approaches. As they noted, “while it is true that data is not always going to be positive, and that’s okay, data should not be used as a tool of oppression. I think data is often used to put the burden back on minoritized people for a system that they didn’t create and I don’t think that’s how data should be used.”