My third-graders tumbled into the classroom, and one child I’d especially been watching for — I need to protect her privacy, so I’ll call her Janie — immediately noticed the two poster-size charts I’d hung low on the wall. Still wearing her jacket, she let her backpack drop to the floor and raised one finger to touch her name on the math achievement chart. Slowly, she traced the row of dots representing her scores for each state standard on the latest practice test. Red, red, yellow, red, green, red, red. Janie is a child capable of much drama, but that morning she just lowered her gaze to the floor and shuffled to her chair.
In our test-mired public schools, those charts are known as data walls, and before I caved in and made some for my Northern Virginia classroom last spring, they’d been proliferating in schools across the country — an outgrowth of “data-driven instruction” and the scramble for test scores at all costs. Making data public, say advocates such as Boston Plan for Excellence, instills a “healthy competitive culture.” But that’s not what I saw in my classroom.
The data walls concept originated with University of Chicago education researcher David Kerbow, who in the late 1990s promoted visual displays to chart students’ progress in reading. Kerbow called these displays “assessment walls,” and he meant them to be for faculty eyes only, as tools for discussion and planning. But when that fundamentally sound idea met constant anxiety over test scores in K-12 schools across the United States, data walls leaked out of staff-room doors and down the halls. Today, a quick search on Pinterest yields hundreds of versions of children’s test scores hung in public view.
“Diving Into Data,” a 2014 paper published jointly by the nonprofit Jobs for the Future and the U.S. Education Department, offers step-by-step instructions for data walls that “encourage student engagement” and “ensure students know the classroom or school improvement goals and provide a path for students to reach those goals.” The assumption is that students will want to take that path — that seeing their scores in relationship to others’ will motivate them to new heights of academic achievement. They are meant to think: “Oh, the green dots show my hard work, yellow means I have more work to do, and red means wow, I really need to buckle down. Now I will pay attention in class and ask questions! I have a plan!”
How efficient it would be if simply publishing our weaknesses galvanized us to learn exactly what we’re lacking.
That late night when I got out my markers and drew the charts, I rationalized that it was time to drop all pretenses. Our ostensible goal in third grade was similar to what you’d hear in elementary schools everywhere: to educate the whole child, introduce them to a love of learning and help them discover their potential. We meant that wholeheartedly. But the hidden agenda was always prepping kids for the state’s tests. For third-graders, Virginia has settled on 12 achievement standards in reading and 20 in math, each divided further into subsections. And once blossoms were on the trees, we were just a few weeks from the exams that would mark us as passing school or a failing one. We were either analyzing practice tests, taking a test or prepping for the next test. Among the teachers, we never stopped talking about scores, and at a certain point it felt disingenuous not to tell the kids what was really going on.
I regretted those data walls immediately. Even an adult faced with a row of red dots after her name for all her peers to see would have to dig deep into her hard-won sense of self to put into context what those red dots meant in her life and what she would do about them. An 8-year-old just feels shame.
Psychologists Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener point out in their book “The Upside of Your Dark Side ” that while some uncomfortable feelings can be useful, shame is not productive. Guilt, they say, can encourage people to learn from their mistakes and to do better. In contrast, “people who feel shame suffer. Shamed people dislike themselves and want to change, hide, or get rid of their self. ”
It also turns out that posting students’ names on data walls without parental consent may violate privacy laws. At the time, neither I nor my colleagues at the school knew that, and judging from the pictures on Pinterest, we were hardly alone. The Education Department encourages teachers to swap out names for numbers or some other code. And sure, that would be more palatable and consistent with the letter, if not the intent, of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. But it would be every bit as dispiriting. My third-graders would have figured out in 30 seconds who was who, coded or not.
The data walls made it harder for me to reach and teach my students, driving a wedge into relationships I’d worked hard to establish. I knew Janie to be an extremely bright child — with lots of stresses in her life. She and I had been working as a team in small group sessions and in extra practice after school. But the morning I hung the data walls, she became Child X with lots of red dots, and I became Teacher X with a chart.
Of course, I tried to mitigate the shame she felt. I let her loudly sing a song she made up, and I made time for one of our conversations on the playground. Did my efforts at reconnection help? Maybe a little. But she still had all those red dots for everyone to see.
It’s hard to find research that supports public data walls. In fact, studies suggest that rather than motivating students, they may be detrimental. “Evaluation systems that emphasize social comparison tend to lower children’s perceptions of their competence when they don’t compare favorably and cause them to engage in many self-defeating cognitions and experience considerable negative affect,” according to Carole Ames, a leading scholar of social and academic motivation and a professor emeritus at Michigan State University.
In an article published in March in the journal Educational Policy, Julie Marsh, Caitlin Farrell and Melanie Bertrand warn against data walls and similar practices that stress competition and achievement rather than meaningful learning. They note that federal education policy has “long emphasized status measures of student achievement (i.e., proficiency) and assumed that public reporting of information on performance, coupled with consequences, will motivate individuals to work harder and differently to improve performance.” Now, they observe, that focus on achievement and mistaken assumptions about motivation have trickled down to the classroom. Their study of six middle schools found that “many well-intentioned teachers . . . appeared to be using data with students in ways that theoretically may have diminished the motivation they initially sought to enhance.”
And consider exactly who is being shamed by data walls. Janie is part of an ethnic minority group. She received free breakfast and lunch every school day last year, and some days that’s all she ate. Her family had no fixed address for much of the year, and Janie, age 8, frequently found herself the responsible caretaker of younger siblings. That’s who is being shamed.
And do you see those neat rows of green dots on the chart? If you haven’t already guessed, they belong to children whose families have the resources for new shoes and fresh fruit and a little left over for a modest vacation from time to time, children whose parents attend teacher conferences with their forms not only signed but stapled to a list of questions about how to help with homework.
When policymakers mandate tests and buy endlessly looping practice exams to go with them, their image of education is from 30,000 feet. They see populations and sweeping strategies. From up there, it seems reasonable enough to write a list of 32 discrete standards and mandate that every 8-year-old in the state meet them. How else will we know for sure that teaching and learning are happening down there?
But if we zoom in, we see that education actually happens every weekday, amid pencils and notebooks, between an adult and a small group of youngsters she personally knows and is deeply motivated to teach. Public education has always been — and needs to be still — a patchwork of ordinary human relationships. Data walls, and the high-stakes tests that engender them, aren’t merely ineffective, they break the system at its most fundamental level. They break the connection between a teacher who cares and a kid who really needs her to care.
Teaching the young wasn’t supposed to feel like this. When we imagine the ideal elementary school, we see walls covered with things the kids made. We see kids clustered around tadpoles and taking notes in crooked, exuberant handwriting. We hear “Oh, wow!” from teachers and children alike, and the murmur of many voices talking it over and figuring it out. We smell grass stains on sweaty little kids because they just ran in from a long romp outdoors. And why shouldn’t our elementary schools be what we wish for? The whole ideal of school, this particular means to pass our accumulated human knowledge from one generation to the next, is a construct we made up. Why not make it wonderful? Why not make it work?
We are failing our kids. The writing is on the wall.