By | Miguel Ortega
Data, for all the times it has been used to construct an ‘objective’ portrayal of reality, is complex and prone to many subjective factors. The difficulty of accurately representing the student experience in a school is a well-documented struggle. Another key dimension of investigating and representing the reality of school and student experiences is the selection of criteria themselves, and what they communicate about a school’s values.
Measures of secondary student success, a foundational value of most schools, are tied to standardized tests, such as SAT or ACT participation rates and scores. AP score averages and pass rates form another, more prestigious, set of test-based data points. What values underlie the use of standardized tests and scores – themselves founded with racist and eugenicist motives – as the sole or main markers of “student success?” To investigate, measure, and report a more complex definition of student success requires complex and creative seeking and reporting of data. This requires complex and creative criteria. This must go beyond simply adding yearly graduation rates to the collection of data points. Student success is not the only criterion that deserves critical examination. When looking at data, questioning the criteria themselves is a critical step. What does a school believe and communicate about its Black and Brown students if its only data point correlated with race is academic performance, or worse, failing grades and achievement gaps?
What might a school value and communicate to its stakeholders if it uses data to investigate the frequency with which restorative practices are utilized? What does a school value if it seeks to measure the efficacy of its restorative practices by effectively measuring any reduction in suspension and pushout discipline? If access to data that accurately depicts student experiences in schools is a question looming over education, as indicated in this issue of DJEC, then critical evaluation of the questions asked, before any answers are even given, merits similar consideration.
In many conversations about students, I have found that data can cheapen important conversations and decisions a school might make. At its most benign, I have seen blind reliance on ‘objective’ data obfuscate values and choices to be made. In uglier cases, educators might hide behind data as a shield from the vulnerable responsibility of ‘knowing’ the complexity and humanity of a school community. By relying on data, an educator can use an alphabetical list of D & F grades to claim a knowledge of which kids are struggling in school without ever needing to know who those students are. Data can be valuable and powerful, but not at the expense of the humanity of those whom it describes. Data that centers and bolsters the humanity of students and stakeholders is a far more effective and admirable goal.
Schools are complex, as are the realities of their students and stakeholders. For that reason, data must be complex. This is not to say that traditional data points must be thrown out.
The question must be asked: what criteria must also be researched in order to make data less opaque and more faithful to a school’s values?
What data criteria could a school investigate in order to demonstrate that they value community? How should a school effectively and transparently communicate these data points to the community? Complex data requires complex and creative criteria, which requires plenty of innovative and imaginative thinking. Educational data is a powerful tool that must be handled responsibly. Rather than given over to ‘objectivity,’ educators must take time to explicitly define their core values and commit to using data criteria that align with these values.
Miguel Ortega is a product of Aurora, CO. He currently teaches Spanish in the Cherry Creek School District, along with sponsoring Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR) and other DEI movements in the school building and district. He also teaches summers at the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy at Regis University. Along with working in education in Aurora, Miguel partners with schools in Nicaragua and Honduras. In his free time, Miguel is an avid reader and photographer, bringing photos and images into the classroom and serving students with his photography.