Ignoring Data is the Problem

Data is important.

Too often the when discussing education, we have allowed for data to become to enemy of progress, when our future is dependent on seeing the problems, testing solutions and using innovation to make our educational system stronger.

Recently an MPU parent brought up an amazing example of why data is so important to her: it’s very similar to the issue of police brutality and inequity in communities of color. It’s not something new, something that has just started happening. But now it’s something we see playing out on Facebook, on the news — things that go down in a local Starbucks that would have been ignored in the past. And the reason we’re all outraged is because we have cell phones — a tool capable of capturing data and taking what people of color have known for generations that has been pushed off as an anecdote and made it real for everyone.

School testing is very similar. We’ve known for years that children of color have been trapped in underperforming schools and have suffered under crushing achievement gaps. But having a set of tools that gives us the data to back it up — a set of tests that everyone has to take — moves our anecdotes to fact and forces action. (At least we hope.)

Massachusetts, once again has ranked the highest in scores across the country for reading and math, but as you dig into the data, black and brown communities are being left behind. Some of the disparities are staggering, with the reading and math scores in parts of MA equivalent to the educational attainment of developing countries.

In fact, disparities in education, income and wealth are some of the highest in the country between Massachusetts’s Latino families compared to their white counterparts.

For so many years, we have used our “good” data, to mask the growing racial inequities in educational attainment, income, and wealth for the commonwealth’s communities of color.

On a recent panel for Bridgewater State University’s #edjustice series, MPU and Fair Test discussed “standardized testing” and we saw similar refrain: some data is bad.

As points were being discussed, a pattern emerged, experiences of communities of color differed drastically then their white counterparts, but that accommodation or understanding was often left unconsidered.

It would seem, that for some, that data only works when it describes the views and experiences of the populations that sees the greatest benefit.

When polling data was presented, by those opposing nearly all testing, it did not account for the demographics of who was being polled. The data points often skewed heavily white, wealthier and suburban. In other words, the attitudes and perceptions often described reflected very little on the glaring racial disparities plaguing our state’s educational system.

In fact, much of the data presented by those challenging testing (anecdotal as well as academic) was not Massachusetts based. Furthermore, the only time racialized data was considered was in negative examples of failing school districts whose policies and procedures had little to no direct correlation to MA issues, solutions or current educational status.

In an effort to challenge all testing, cases were being made from Illinois, Alabama, Tennessee and myriad of other states whose comparison to MA is nearly inconceivable. For many of the examples, if those states had adopted many of the Massachusetts standards, their educational attainment would be rising. In academic circles, we would call that selection bias. The irony is that even in these examples, we are still seeing net academic increases overall.

One panelist even argued that anecdotally parents of color were unaware of the failing status that plagues many school districts throughout the state and therefore the testing and the data that is produced was not helpful to families.

There is no data that supports that assertion.

The most glaring difference in the two sides presenting, was not in their ultimate goals, which differed very little, but how the experiences of communities of color were incorporated in their arguments.

In general, all the panelist agreed that testing should be purposeful, holistic, reflective of the communities being tested, cognizant of the burdens and consequences on students, teachers and staff. Yet, when a racial analysis was applied, the greatest division were revealed.

For example, when a panelist for reduced testing made the point that communities do not wants “big” government to intervene in local issues, MPU had to remind the other panelist that for many communities of color government intervention in MA is seen as protective and positive. From stepping in during the segregated schools of who refused to integrate in Boston to the positive community feedback of the state control of Lawrence school system.

Communities of color have a much more nuanced view of the educational issues facing their families that is lacking in these discussions.

To solve our educational challenges, we need to acknowledge our pitfalls as well as share our best practices. Addressing inequality in education is bigger than one test, one contract or what type of school children attend.

We have lost so much time fighting about nuances that are make such little impact, when some of largest issues have gone unaddressed.

We have yet to fully implement a universal pre-k, expand vocational opportunities for students, tackle reading by the 3rd grade or make chapter 70 funding equal across the state. These are game changing approaches, informed by data, that make a difference in the lives of families across this state.

Data is not our problem, ignoring it is.

What do you think?

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