What Numbers Can Tell Us

Numbers make achievements appear quantifiable. There is no escaping that all levels the stakeholders of education: students, parents, teachers, administrators, communities and politicians are all in pursuit of numbers.

As I work to build my PBL program in a large urban school, I have found myself beleaguered in the past by the insatiable need to have numbers on tests qualify the work myself and others are trying to do in public education. The good news has always been that my administration is thoroughly supportive of the efforts that have been made and really see the numbers as the icing on the cake. But parents, students, and those that sit on boards high above the classroom need numbers to justify doing something as “crazy” as a non-traditional PBL classroom. I get it. Big comfy numbers make us all feel better. Students feel as though they have been rewarded for their work, parents feel as though their child has learned and will perform well on future tests, and board members feel justified in letting a classroom that uses entirely PBL strategies exist. The reality is that numbers really don’t tell us much. At least not the immediate numbers we get from testing. The worst number we often look at is class averages on an assessment.

Class averages are poor barometers of student success as that median number can be very misleading. Any time you generalize a number to make a blanket statement of a class’ success you are covering up any real data that may be waiting for you. This became glaringly apparent to me after having my PBL students take the Fall semester finals along with their traditional classroom counterparts. On one end, the numbers look good or at least on par whereas on another end it makes numbers look almost extraordinary. My ninth grade PBL class averages look fine. They are right in line with what the rest of the ninth grade did despite one-third of the test being over a specific piece of literature that not all my PBL students read or ventured into. (In hindsight, I might have altered this part of the test, but I wanted to see what my students could answer in context of the literature even though they hadn’t been taken through the daily gauntlet of the literature as they would have been in a traditional class.) As might be expected, my students struggled the most on this section overall, but is not the class average number that tells me what I need to know. My tenth grade group scored extraordinarily well in terms of class average. I smiled broadly when I first looked at this number in comparison to their counterparts, but I quickly reminded myself that the class average isn’t the number I needed to be looking at closely.

No, the numbers that really mattered could be found in the item analysis of the tests. Here, I could see each question, each answer, and each red flag along the way. The truth of the numbers can really be seen when you take each question individually and you can reconstruct the test and envision what the students experienced as they took the test. What did I learn from the numbers I saw? I found a few questions that were simply unfair or unreasonable. These questions in some cases are thrown out completely or are taken into consideration for revision in a future test. I discovered the areas most of my students struggled the most with. I’ll use this data to design my second semester coffee chats, or mini-lessons as well as activities. I also find what areas my students struggle in individually. This last point is the most significant. To do my job well, I must take the time to see each student and their individual needs. This can be a nearly impossible task some days when you’re working with over one hundred and twenty students in your classroom, but it is necessary to try in order to help each of those students improve in their skill sets necessary to grow not just on future tests, but in the skills necessary to thrive far after they’ve left my classroom.

So what can numbers tell us? Anything we want them to really. I can manipulate a class average or median grade all day long to whatever end I’d like, but an item analysis shows me the truth. Numbers are what we make them and unfortunately in many cases they are used to degrade public education or to manipulate ideas for money or for the sake of an argument, but what I plan on using my numbers for is to simply to meet my student’s needs and to know what they are to begin with. I may not succeed in all facets, but I will work hard nonetheless for my students anyway. They’re the stakeholders that matter the most at the end of the day.

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