Schools Drowning in a Data Tsunami

Data, data everywhere, now let’s apply it usefully.
Aug 24, 2023
There is a lot of data being gathered but it's often not the right type.

Data, we have data, and with the latest massive NAPLAN results data dump it’s been quickly repurposed as a way of levelling criticism against Australian education and teachers.

We’re behind Finland, and Singapore, there is persistent unevenness between the NAPLAN results in the city and from large well-funded private schools and the public and rural sectors; huge money spent to achieve underwhelming results, you know the score.

But there are better ways to employ the data we’ve collected in a more constructive way, we need to redirect the way we use data, away from the big-data tsunami and towards what is useful to students, leveraging teachers’ expertise to use data in a more granular fashion.

Dr Kay Carroll at Western Sydney University says, "Teachers and school leaders are awash and often at sea with standardised testing data, formative assessment, grade descriptors and performance measures for individual classes in courses.

"External benchmarking occurs also at an international level with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that assesses reading, mathematics, and science. PISA assesses fifteen-year-old students from schools in sixty-five countries. In 2012, thirty-four OECD and thirty-one partner countries participated including Australia involving 500,000 students. In Australia, 775 schools comprising 14,481 students were assessed. In our neoliberal times, PISA has become synonymous with achievement and benchmarking.

"Yet within schools, teachers can use data in a very different way - to assess learning and provide ways for students to stretch and develop their capabilities. It is this data, largely ignored by policy and media narratives, that has a more meaningful relationship to students’ learning and development. Data such as student work samples can pinpoint where a student has demonstrated success and how to get new understanding or depth in learning.

"Teachers use this small-scale data to align their classroom practices and mapping the curriculum directly to learning intentions and success criteria. The benefits to students are critical, informing feedback, and shaping future learning.

"The introduction of learning analytics and generative AI opens up new possibilities for teacher to use live, responsive and informative data to guide learning. Increasing this form of data can capture student work and add quality feedback and description of the learning."

We are currently reaching data saturation in education from large-scale national and international tests and often the data that teachers collect in their classrooms is marginalised along with the role of teacher professional judgment. 

"Large-scale standardised national (NAPLAN) and international (PISA) testing regimes generate data of limited value to the classroom teacher due to their generic construction and because they focus largely on comparative, cross-jurisdictional student performance and historical trends,” says Dr Don Carter from University of Technology Sydney.

"They also fuel political agendas and media headlines. The data also become the platform upon which to criticise teachers, teacher ‘quality’ and teacher education programs.

"When it comes to education, we need to use language more judiciously and critically. For example, the term ‘evidence-based’ is not a simple or one-dimensional term; although it is often used uncritically and unproblematically by policymakers and politicians to promote a particular policy direction or policy position.

"We need to ask relevant questions: what evidence do we need? How should it be collected? How will we analyse the data? And what will be do with the results of this evidence? In doing so, we need to avoid what has been called “research as ammunition”.

"What seems to have been lost in recent education debates is a focus on the purposes of education. If we test students simply to compare results across jurisdictions, then we probably believe we are ‘on track’. However, if we believe the purposes of education to be about nurturing active and informed citizens, then we need to revisit what we consider to be important in education."

Associate Professor Louise Phillips Southern Cross University sees that, "Schools could learn a lot from the way early childhood education uses data to engage and bring together stakeholders.

"School systems have become too reliant on the idea that more data is always a good thing. Across the last ten years or so there has been increased attention to data in school systems, antagonized by international (e.g., PISA), and national (e.g., NAPLAN) standardized testing and publicity. Then state and local school systems develop their own data systems, frameworks to plot and evidence improvement. Many schools have data walls, data plans and dedicated data analysts. International, national and state pressures on schools to perform push their reliance on data to demonstrate their performance,” she says.

"Unfortunately, attention to individual child and youth learning needs and interests can fade into the background with emphasis on data to demonstrate school performance.

“We are seeing the emergence of new approaches to data that are holistic, story based and which centre students as active agents. Data that evidences learning is data on students. We need to honour children as rightsholders – they have the right to know the data that is collected and, importantly, to help decide what happens to the data that captures their learning.

“Giving students the opportunity to actively reflect on the insights of the data through data conversations with peers and teachers could unleash so much learning potential. Data can be made more meaningful, appealing and accessible to broad audiences of children and parents, across ages, abilities and languages. This happens when data is story-based and able to be engaged with through multi-media, visual, digital, oral and other modes of learning."

Associate Professor Ian Hardy at The University of Queensland, thinks teachers are best placed to know which forms of data are valuable.

“Data are construed as ‘universally’ beneficial, necessary and evidence-based. However, the modes of data that attract the most attention are often those that are least useful.

"Teachers have never had so much access to so much data about their students. However, the extent to which the generation and collection of data in schools is genuinely educative is highly debatable, yet practically treated as irrelevant.

"Many teachers find the focus upon data too narrow to capture more holistic conceptions of student learning, and that data are often used for punitive purposes (comparing and criticising teachers and class performance), rather than as starting points for conversations about how to enhance student learning.

"It is educators within schools and schooling systems who are most likely to recognise the forms and modes of data that are of most value for enhancing teaching practice and student learning,” he says.

Image by Jimmy Bolt