Issie Lapowsky, writing for Wired Magazine on February 24, 2015, describes a startup focused on giving educators data about their students and schools beyond just test scores (“Startup Launches Tool to Help School Systems See Beyond Test Scores”). The startup, Panorama, is an enticing focus for the article because it’s funded by Mark Zuckerberg and offers an easy and predictable comparison to standardized testing. Panorama takes the viewpoint, the article describes, of tracking qualitative factors in student education that also affect performance: campus safety, student self-confidence, student engagement, and even more loosely-defined scales such as “grit.”
It’s tempting to quickly dismiss the article as click-bait because of its direct and immediate comparison between Panorama’s approach and standardized test scores. “(Test scores) are the easy things to measure,” Ms. Lapowsky writes. “And yet, the best teachers, parents, and principals know that what truly makes or breaks a student’s experience in school is not math and reading scores, but all the touchy-feely, fuzzy stuff.”
It’s clear that these metrics are not mutually exclusive, nor are some more valuable than others. It’s facetious to simply dismiss test scores as less valuable than the “touchy-feely stuff.” Standardized test results are incredibly valuable for many reasons, from placement and growth measurements to accountability. Each set of metrics are simply used for different purposes, with each type of data playing its own particular role in students’ experiences, performance, and overall academic success.
With this perspective, the data that Panorama can provide educators is indeed valuable. Using a research-based survey approach, Panorama helps schools and districts measure up to 9 scales that affect student performance, ranging from “teacher expectations and rigor” to the afore-mentioned “grit” — student’s ability to “persevere through setbacks to achieve important long-term goals.”
Understanding the level of engagement students feel with their teachers, and how strongly they feel supported by their teachers, are important metrics to understand because there are correlations between these metrics and student success. And Panorama isn’t the only organization trying to provide this information to educators. The Alliance for the Study of School Climate (ASSC), led by Cal State Los Angeles, has a similar goal. They offer an assessment that examines similar metrics, including faculty relations, student interactions, attitude and culture, and community relations.
What’s key is what happens after the surveys and assessments. Schools and teachers can be armed with the best data, but if they don’t know what to do with it, the data is virtually useless. Panorama doesn’t yet offer schools help taking steps after the survey data is compiled – the proverbial “what’s next step” — claiming that “once Panorama supplies schools with this information, it’s up to principals and teachers to do something about it,” according to CEO Aaron Feuer. Yet, as standardized testing itself has shown, it’s this next step that is the most critical.
Some organizations, though, are tackling this second step of implementing change based on student and school climate data. Along with the ASSC, the National School Climate Center is another organization that assists schools by offering professional development to help understand how to improve school safety, relationships, teaching, and the overall learning environment.
There remains an open question, however. If metrics such as student self-confidence are truly keys to academic success, by what standard do we measure and interpret these metrics? What is considered a “good” level of student engagement? These quantified measures of qualitative forces need some form of objective interpretation and scale so schools can compare their results to that of their peers. Otherwise there is no catalyst for action within schools and districts, only the collection of abstract data. And that’s the missing part of these solutions that will make such surveys and assessments truly actionable.