Standing Tall: The Role of Standards, Assessments, and Data in Education

Standing Tall: The Role of Standards, Assessments, and Data in Education

All of our work at the Data Quality Campaign (DQC) is about the power of information. We believe that when education stakeholders—from parents to teachers to policymakers—are empowered with appropriate data, they can make the best decisions possible to improve student achievement. But data don’t exist in a vacuum. Data aren’t useful if they don’t measure what counts. And if meaningful data are collected but not used to adjust course and identify best practices, then it’s all a pointless exercise. After all, data are not the end of the conversation, they’re only the beginning.

Standards, assessments, and data give us a powerful basis for the continuous improvement of our schools. High standards provide goals to ensure our kids will be prepared for the future. High-quality, aligned assessments measure our progress toward those goals. And data provide the useful feedback needed to make changes that get us closer to the results we need.

These elements are like the three legs of a stool—you need all three to keep it balanced. Without one of the legs, the stool falls over. Let’s take data, for example. Yank the data away, and you just have standards and assessments—we’d simply be testing kids for the sake of testing and compliance reporting. We must employ the highest standards and most effective tests, but without using the resulting data, student improvement and system performance will be stymied.

At DQC we have been advocating for years that data are so much more than just test scores. They include information from multiple sources, such as student and teacher attendance; services, interventions, and curricula students receive; students’ academic development and growth; teacher preparation information; postsecondary success; and remediation rates.

But assessments remain an important piece of the puzzle to measuring progress toward education goals and personalized learning. Still, they are pointless if the results aren’t used to improve practice. The backlash against testing is due in part to the fact that for many years the data coming from these tests were rarely used in an effective way. That has been changing around the country, but more needs to be done to ensure that assessment data are used for more than compliance and accountability and are really being used for improvement. This includes getting the results of tests into the hands of students, parents, and teachers in a timely and user-friendly manner. If we want people to use this data to inform their discussions, decisions, and actions, then we need to make sure they have it in a form that is understandable, useful, and actionable. We also need to build the public trust—especially of parents—that this data, and all data on kids, are being kept confidential, secure, and safe. People won’t use data they don’t trust will not be used to harm them or their kids.

Another leg of the stool is standards, which provide a clear articulation of what we expect our kids to know and be able to do—an important framework as we prepare young people to compete in a global, knowledge-based economy. Most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards and are in the process of implementing them. Other states are implementing their own college- and career-ready standards. Whatever standards a state chooses to use, data can paint a robust picture of progress toward them.

We need to prepare people to dive into the meaty part of the discussion. In addition to identifying which state or district is achieving at the highest levels under new standards, we need to unpack what we can learn from those schools, districts, and states that outperformed us. How can we distill successful approaches and communicate them? What is the best way to talk to parents and students and community members about how our school fared and our plans to improve? These are the questions that quality data can inform, to begin a conversation about doing better.

No student or teacher would say that the reason they go to school is to get high marks on tests. A successful education should instill the knowledge and skills that prepare students for life. Data are not an end; they are a tool to help us reach our goals. They keep us all honest as to whether our adopted standards are aligned to the realities of the knowledge economy and if our assessments are being used to improve the future, not simply gaze into the past.

With a strong data support, the three-legged stool can stand independently and provide the foundation we need to ensure every American gets the world-class education they deserve.