The dangers of data: How numbers became more important than children

By Wyatt Donnelly-Landolt

There’s a scene in Boy Meets World in which Mr. Feeny imparts his typical wisdom on Corey: “You see, Mr. Matthews, education is not about obscure facts and little test scores. Education is about the overall effect of years of slow absorption, concepts, philosophies, approaches to problem solving. The whole process is so grand and all-encompassing that it really can’t be threatened by the occasional late night no-hitter.”

The words of fictional George Feeny in some ways point to a testing movement that has dominated the discussion on how to improve America’s failing schools.  The argument for testing alleges that by simply holding teachers accountable for student learning through formulaic, multiple-choice testing, we can compete our way to the top of the world’s education rankings.  As Mr. Feeny knew, however, education requires much more than filling in some bubbles and recalling important facts; education requires years of hard work that ultimately alter an individual’s ability to think and reason through life.  During my brief experience teaching, I witnessed the dangers of data in schools and the ability of data-based incentives to warp the fundamental purpose of education.  The data-driven school I saw no longer cared about educating students. Instead, it focused on high test scores and low disciplinary rates, and was willing to sacrifice ethics to accomplish this goal.

Tests can never fully express what occurs when a person becomes educated because tests only measure learning – they are not the learning itself.  Advocates of the testing movement call for programs where test scores determine school “grades,” teacher salary, and which schools remain open.  At best, these reforms shift the focus of our educators from educating students to manufacturing test-taking machines; at worst, they cause teachers and administrators to overlook ethics.

I experienced the latter outcome.  Halfway through my second year of teaching, the district placed my principal on paid leave after an investigation discovered rampant cheating.  The list of ethical infractions was endless.  He changed the grades of athletes so they could compete; he created classes on students’ transcripts so they would have sufficient credits to graduate; he took home the modified tests for special education students to fill in the correct bubbles on the answer sheet.  Hundreds of students graduated from the school during his tenure, and only a fraction of them were prepared to face the difficulties of the real world.

The manipulation of data to improve outside appearances reached well beyond tests and grades.  Each day, the principal forced the secretaries to change the attendance of different students to raise the overall level to meet district goals.  For nearly three years, not a single student dropped out of school; not because no students left the school but because the administration erased any record of them.  Discipline did not exist within the walls of the school.  Students fought each other, did drugs on school grounds, and assaulted teachers with little recourse to lower suspension rates.  Special education students learned in regular education classrooms because this mainstreaming process impressed the district.  It also caused more chaos in the lives of already unstable students.  One girl, Nia, entered the school immediately from in-patient care at a mental institution.  She never received any type of special service. Instead, she spent the day wandering the halls, screaming, and flipping over trash cans.  She never received the help she needed, and eventually had to return to the hospital after she threatened to kill herself with a pair of scissors in front of a class of 25 8th graders.  By focusing on the data, our principal built an unsafe, aggressive, chaotic culture where no student could learn.

Tests provide a simple benchmark of student progress on the 3 R’s (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic), but fail to measure the progress of an individual’s education.  While the experiences I witnessed are extreme versions of the dangers of overemphasizing data-based incentives, many schools now force students into small classes for hours of test prep for weeks preceding standardized tests.  This approach may improve test scores, but it undermines the ultimate goal of educating students in a lasting way that creates lifelong learners.  When used improperly, data creates distorted incentives and undermines the higher purpose of any organization.  In my situation, data created an unethical and dangerous place for children, and as the data movement grows in other sectors, so do the dangers of data.

Wyatt Donnelly-Landolt is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.