The 4 letter word we hate to hear in schools

I know, the title of this post was click-bait. I am not talking about the F-bomb or the Shizzle. I am talking about a word even more dreaded by those in classrooms. DATA.

In its purest form, assessment, as it will be used here is an attempt to take internal knowledge and measure it with an external measure. It is really an exercise in translation. Students have understandings, and misunderstandings, in their heads, that we as educators try to draw out so that we can make inferences and draw conclusions. Because of this, it is important that we all understand that data analysis and assessment creation an imperfect science, just like any art of translation.

Each language on earth has its own subtleties and nuances. Idioms, similes, metaphors, and all forms of figurative language have their own meanings rooted in unique contexts and social histories. Teaching pronouns and verb agreement to an English speaker is done in a way much differently than it is to a speaker of Russian. Phonemic awareness is much different with Latin based alphabets than it is with speakers in Japan or China. As linguists will tell you, these variations often make pure translation between languages virtually impossible. There is always something lost in the translation.  Think about how many English translations of the world’s best selling book there are (The Bible): King James, New International, Living, New Living, etc… There are an estimated 900 translations of the English Bible as scholars attempt to accurately determine the meaning of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The more the Bible gets translated, the more it changes.

What classroom assessments are designed to do is to translate thoughts, understandings, imaginations, and ideas into a form that we often try to quantify, convert to a scale score or a percentage, and then again into a letter grade. We attempt to take the electrical pulses of neurons in the brains of our students and convert them into tangible products that we then judge and analyze. As educators we often spend the bulk of our time planning how to create the neural connections and very little time determining whether or not our plans for measuring those connections are actually any good. As a result we often make incorrect inferences of knowledge and therefore misalign our instruction.

I am a firm believer in the concept of beginning with the end in mind. When John F. Kennedy made the goal to land on the moon in less than a decade, resources and thoughts were aligned towards that goal. Landing on the moon successfully was the goal. It was measured. We did it and knew when we did. By knowing where you are going you can measure your progress in getting there. 

As teachers, we are involved in a craft that is not linear. It is cyclical. Our job is not to just explicitly provide instruction, but instead to assess needs and progress. When you go to the doctor’s office to try and improve your health, there are a few baseline tests that are run almost every time. Maybe your blood pressure, height, weight, and pulse are measured, but based upon other symptoms, you may be ordered to receive additional assessments. These assessments are used to help prescribe a focused treatment plan. Once prescribed, this plan usually also involves follow up appointments where the fidelity of the treatment plan can be analyzed, with adjustments or enhancements developed as a result to further drive progress. In a doctor’s office, assessment comes before treatment as well as during. Far too often in classrooms today we offer universal treatments that are then followed up with an assessment with no reflection on the results.


Imagine if your doctor did the same thing. From Monday through Thursday, every person who enters the office is given a little blue pill. The doctor knows that everyone who is showing up needs to get better. The doctor knows that the little blue pill was made to help people, so he infers that the little blue pill will help everyone who walks in. On Friday the doctor gives his patients an assessment of health, perhaps measuring dexterity or reflexes, it doesn’t matter that the pill was designed to help with hypertension, and is shocked to see that only a portion of the population is showing evidence of health, based on this measure. Those who are not healthy by this standard are then sent to the doctor across the hall to get a focused intervention. This would never be permitted in medicine, yet this is the same practice we engage in daily within our schools. Teachers are brain surgeons. They are charged with molding, shaping, and forming human minds. It is our job to grow the minds of children, to develop them, and allow for cognitive health. As such, perhaps we, as educators and parents, should begin to understand how our lack of awareness in our assessment practices truly equate to educational malpractice.

I have a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership. I have accumulated well over 250 credit hours in educational course work. I teach as an adjunct professor in the school of education at a college in the Midwest. Throughout my own personal college experiences, as well as those I am lucky enough to teach, I am yet to experience a single course designed to help teachers create, analyze, or infer as a result of assessments. As a former classroom teacher, the way I learned to assess was by working with my peers. What they did, I did. What they often did was whatever the teacher’s edition of the textbook told them to. We would teach Monday through Thursday, give a quiz on Friday and repeat this cycle until we “finished” a unit when a test would be given. The goal was to get through an entire textbook during the course of a school year and we often did.

About fifteen years ago I began to hear with more regularity the terms formative and summative assessment. I was told that there were two types of assessments we could use in our classrooms, those that should count for a grade and those that were merely practice. I learned that some assessments were designed to help the teacher and some were designed to measure students. It was this erroneous thinking that guided my own malpractice for years, inhibiting my ability to reach students to the fullest possible level, something I hope this book frees you to do. By challenging some of what you already do and providing new insights, my goal is to help you ultimately meet your students where they are so that they can grow beyond where you ever dreamed of taking them before. As we go, one foundational belief will guide everything we discuss. The goal of assessment should always be to drive future performance. Assessment always precedes instruction and should never complete it. It is the beginning of the cycle, not the end. Assessment does not fall into one of two categories. It is not summative or formative. The goal of any assessment should be to help develop future plans and goals. A quality assessment informs where you are so you can plan to get where you want. It is not one or the other.

In my current full time position, I get paid twice a month, on the 10th and 25th. In my last job I only got paid once a month. The total amount earned each month was basically the same, but let me tell you, trying to plan a month at a time for expenses is a lot more difficult than having to create a budget 15 days at a time. I am sure it is just a mental exercise, but my ability to not overextend myself and to ensure my outcome does not exceed my income has changed dramatically as a result of this change. Now, I am able to login to my bank account online twice a month, do a quick scan of purchases and deposits, make sure I am staying within my limits, and create short term plans and corrections if I am off track. When I was only getting paid once a month, for some reason my mindset was so different. By the 15th of every month panic was setting in and I found myself just trying to hold on. I found myself either in a defensive mode trying to hold on to whatever I had left or I would put my head in the sand and pretend everything was alright and end up in debt by the time I got paid again.

I think in schools, many of us fall victim to one of these two mindsets as well. Maybe not with balancing our checkbooks, but instead balancing our lesson plan books. When I was a classroom teacher, I will admit, I struggled to make a learning “budget”. I often just shot from the hip, spent my teaching capital on whatever I felt was needed on any given day, failed to adequately plan ahead, and after a few weeks decided it was time to assess my progress. I would give students a test or a quiz on all I had covered and was often shocked to learn that I wasn’t nearly as on track as I thought I was. Or, worse than that, I would give a test or quiz, would see amazing results, and failed to realize that those results were not part of any larger plan or aligned towards bigger goals, but simply a reflection of all I did. It would be akin to balancing my checkbook by looking at all of my new clothes in my closet as opposed to the dollars and cents available in my account. I would analyze what I spent my capital on instead of my progress towards generating true wealth.

In schools today, data has become a four letter word. Data is seen as a term that reflects judgement, condemnation, and evaluation. Data has been perverted from a word that should drive reflection, progress, and growth, primarily because so many of us have chosen not to look at our accounts, but instead to look at our closets. When others bring us our statements and we see a negative balance, we get defensive and blame those who deliver the news, instead of looking at ourselves and reflecting on whether or not we spent our time and energy where it would be best served and making regular adjustments where needed.

When I run a negative balance or get an overdraft charge, I do not blame my bank. It is on me. I spent more than I had on things I probably did not need. The good news is that often I can call my bank, ask for a fee to be waived, and then make the necessary adjustments to avoid making the same mistake again. By having created a regular pattern of assessing my balance every two weeks, I am much more prone to staying within my limits and staying on track.


In your classroom or school, it is critical to put yourself on a schedule for assessing whether or not you are on track, spending your time and energy where you should, and making adjustments before it gets too late. In too many schools today we are asking teachers to give up instructional time simply to assess students with the intent of predicting future success on another assessment. We put teachers on a prescribed pacing plan, in a scripted framework, ask for assessments three times a year, and one big assessment in the spring, without also allowing them to have the freedom to make adjustments, to deviate from what they have been doing and to better align their resources. We also have teachers who often do not focus on any designated plan or standards, who simply shop nightly for a new lesson idea (sometimes literally- Pinterest and Teacher Pay Teacher…ugggh) and when the time comes to measure progress, they find themselves in complete shock and without a plan for how to make adjustments to what has been done or needs to be done going forward.

I am a firm believer that the secret sauce, the magic pill, the silver bullet to highly effective teaching is the ability to reflect. If teachers are able to determine whether or not each day has gotten them closer to a goal, whether or not students have made gains, whether or not their lesson plan book is staying balanced, without the need for a judgement laced critique, we will see amazing results. My financial adviser gives me recommendations, but does not tell me what I have to do. If you are a leader of a school, the same mindset could serve you well. If you are a teacher, each month, determine how you will measure how much intellectual capital you expect your students to acquire and then spend some time at regular intervals measuring their progress. Don’t wait until the end and then panic when things didn’t go as planned, and don’t micromanage every withdrawal. Put yourself on a pattern that allows for frequent assessment of progress coupled with the ability to make adjustments, and when judgment day does arrive, I am sure you will be in the black.


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