The collection and analysis of quantitative or statistical data plays an important role in how stories are told in our contemporary world. Leveraging the insights provided by analysis of these data, it is commonly thought, allows us to more clearly and efficiently evaluate the world around us and make changes that can be shown to be impactful and positive. Like many other sectors of society, it seems that the educational world has embraced the idea that data-driven solutions are the most efficient path forward for improving outcomes. By developing a greater capacity to understand and utilize data, schools and school districts hope they can produce a more accurate picture of how schools are functioning and how they can be changed for the better. However, metro area community members have noted that collecting and analyzing data is not in and of itself sufficient for the improvement of schools. Although data can be instructive in establishing future policy directions and evaluating performance, the current use of data by school districts in the metro area inaccurately represents the values of some communities.
One difficulty in utilizing data is initially coming to a consensus about what information should be collected in the first place. For many community members, data that accurately describes people’s “lived experience” in a school is what’s most worth collecting. One community member working to reimagine data in DPS put it this way, “the way data [is] now being used is not for that continuous learning model. [It’s] used in a way to try to tell a story I just don’t think [it] can tell with the limited set of information they have. And that’s what I think is dangerous. That perhaps is what you’re hearing from educators and myself included.” She noted that the mismatch between lived experience and what can be told by quantitative data can have disproportionately negative consequences for schools that are innovative or serve already-marginalized communities. In fact, what might feel like an educational success story to those living in a community can be framed as a failure when data is weaponized.
Having data to support claims about people’s experiences can help those advocating for change present the problem in a way that is intelligible and valid for decision-makers. As one DPS alum noted, having data to support an experience or observational data can make one’s claims seem more “true” than if those same observations were presented with anecdotal stories. Another DPS alum noted that having quality data allows for multiple experiences to be compared and contrasted relatively quickly. As they put it, “data can streamline stories and perspectives like if 10 students in a survey all have really similar experiences, data can bring them together and like reporting that data can tell us this is a pattern and this is systemic.” As schools and communities become more attached to informing decision-making based on insights from data, it has become increasingly important to have the appropriate data to contextualize an issue. School districts in the metro area, however, have used metrics that fail to richly capture the elements of people’s experience in school.
Community members noted that the ways in which data is used does not always help the general public understand what is happening at a school or in a school district. As one educator noted, it seems that school districts in the metro area are most interested in standardized testing results because it allows for schools and students to be easily compared with each other. In this way, all the data that are necessary to understand how well or poorly a school is doing involve the aggregate of the test scores for students inside the school. However, while a standardized test score can provide a snapshot into one particular dynamic in a school, it can not tell you everything that may be relevant to understand how schools and students are performing. A more robust collection of data points may provide better insight into what is happening in a school and how the students and educators in that school can be better served. One educator noted that it takes many data points to accurately reflect the story of what is happening in any given school. As they put it, “a good body of evidence will tell you where kids are. Take CMAS (Colorado Measures of Academic Success) plus internal data plus grades and you’ll get a more accurate story of how kids are performing but you can’t use any one of those and think you’ve got the story.”
One DPS parent noted that part of the problem with the current use of data is that it has little relevance when trying to determine if a school is the right fit for a child. As another DPS parent put it, “maybe they are a 5-star school or whatever the rating is, but is it going to allow my child to thrive? There’s not a number for that.” Simple models which rely heavily on standardized test scores reveal something about the performance of a school but lack the depth of complexity to help parents determine how the current dynamics of the school relate to their child’s needs. A former DPS student noted that her mother tried to use current assessments of schools to place her and her sister in the “best” school; however, because standardized metrics don’t always translate into the lived experience of the school, she ended up having a poor experience in comparison to the school she moved from. As she put it, “I really enjoyed East, I was loving it then all of a sudden next fall I’m going to DSST and I’m like why, and my mom is like East is not safe. But how does she know it’s not safe? How do you know that school is not best for me… Now you put me in this bubble based on the data you received from someone else.”
When people’s experiences are reduced to metrics like test scores, taking a nuanced approach to explore the cause of differentiation can sometimes be ignored. As one alum noted, creating a narrative from context-free data can reduce complex social phenomena to a collection of statistics, in some ways defining what success is. This seems to suggest all data collection processes should include an element of discussion with affected populations to get their perspective on why the findings from the data are occurring. As an alum noted, “I would argue that you should have more than one type of data, at least it shouldn’t just be numbers. For example, the Cherry Creek School District just reports numbers and they don’t really talk about the experiences of the students they’re talking about so you can tell us that there is some sort of disparity…For example, if you’re talking about the way the education system is failing Black and Brown students you should talk to those Black and Brown students specifically and find out what barriers are in place or what white supremacist norms exist within the school system that makes something like graduation seem more inaccessible.”
It is tempting to suggest that through the collection of raw data, we can know everything we need to know about what schools are doing and what they need, but that may not be the case. One parent in DPS realized that despite her desire to be able to understand the school system via a data collection framework, there is no way for data collection alone to tell the full story. As they put it, “regardless of what you’re looking at, data gets you 80% there but it will not cross the finish line and that has been a really hard truth that I’ve had to accept as someone who loves data. I think it’s a tool, the desire for efficiency is great but if a task gets done then the task gets done, it doesn’t really matter how efficient you are.” Despite the inadequacy of data to tell the full story, for many community members, it is important that data is collected in a way that is accurate, meaningful and useful. In order to ensure that data can fulfill these functions, it appears that expanding conventional definitions of what counts as relevant data, as well as how that information is dispersed, is a necessary step forward in the use of data in education.