Beyond the Scantron: Brightbeam CEO Chris Stewart on How the Pandemic Will Widen Achievement Gaps — and How a ‘Data Vacation’ Could Leave Us Clueless About the Crisis

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This interview is part of “Beyond the Scantron: Tests and Equity in Today’s Schools,” a three-week series produced in partnership with the George W. Bush Institute to examine key elements of high-quality exams and illuminate why using them well and consistently matters to equitably serve all students. Read all the pieces in this series as they are published here. Read our previous accountability series here.

Chris Stewart is the CEO of brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding quality schools for every child. The self-described parent activist served on the Minneapolis school board and now sits on the board of Great Schools. He also led the African American Leadership Forum, worked for Education Post and actively blogs under the name Citizen Stewart.

Stewart spoke with us in late summer and focused on why quality assessments can help parents and teachers grasp the academic needs of their students, particularly students of color. He explained why he worries that states will experience a “data vacation” during COVID-19 that limits their understanding of how the pandemic has impacted student learning. And he talked about the importance of simply explaining test results so parents, teachers and policymakers can act upon them.

Courtesy of Chris Stewart

What role does high-quality assessment play in teaching and learning? And what role should it play in policy and accountability?

I approach these questions as a parent. I like folks to know what primarily drives me here in the first place, and it’s that I’m a parent activist. I was a parent who had a problem with schools a long time ago, and that drives most of what I think and what I’ve learned about things like assessment and their utility.

The role of assessment is twofold for me. First, what it is used for in the classroom and with teachers, and second, what it is used for outside of the classroom for me as a parent, my community and the public.

Hopefully, within the classroom, formative assessment is helping drive instruction to fit the places where my kid needs interventions and shows where students need more learning. And, hopefully, the teacher can learn from week to week with some sort of data to understand what our kids need to know.

Outside of that, I find the summative piece more important. The summative part lets me and the public know how our schools are doing. Specifically, it lets me know how my kid’s school is doing and whether we need to apply public pressure for improvements.

I want district leaders, state leaders, federal leaders, everybody, looking at summative data as they consider interventions, resources and policies that hold schools and districts accountable. I want them making the summative data transparent and shared with the public so that we can be informed voters. We need to be smart about our voting and participation.

There’s another piece that I’ll mention. If you look at civil rights lawsuits where communities are suing states or districts for better education and fairness in schools, you’re probably going to find in every one that they quickly pull the test scores of the district. It would be a phenomenally bad thing to not have that data. You would not have the basis for showing the inequities and outcomes.

We only know that there’s a difference between white students and Black students and other students of color because we have the data. We only know about that because we have assessments. I can’t speak for the quality, but we better have some form of assessment.

We know that students have had a really uneven experience since March, and now we’re heading into a new school year where that ambiguity and uncertainty hasn’t changed. As you think about the students you advocate for, what are you paying attention to this school year?

I’m paying attention to whether kids have what they need to participate in whatever form of schooling they might have. Will adequate attention be paid to the so-called COVID slide? Will we have accurate information to tell which kids have fallen back where, and what their exact deficits are?

I have a real worry about what I’m calling a “data vacation.” I think that a lot of people are using COVID as a timely excuse to take a data vacation for a year or maybe two. I see that a lot, as if we would decide not to take Americans’ blood pressure for the next two years because people are in disarray. If we did that, hypertension would go out of control. And we wouldn’t find out who was most at risk until we got back from the data vacation.

I am paying a lot of attention to this because we’re already starting to get reports that kids are falling behind. And, as you would expect, we’re starting to see that it’s the kids who do the worst and struggle the most in regular times that will be hardest hit. I’m looking at a 2021 and 2022 that looks much worse than it should look, simply because of the data vacation, simply because we’re not going to have adequate information to know even where to start remediating kids.

We went into COVID with big gaps. COVID, logically, would expand some of those gaps. But if you don’t have the information about the size of the gap, and where it exists, that gap will grow even larger in one or two years.

As a parent, how do you talk to other parents about the use of data to understand learning gaps and to have a better sense of equity issues?

Minnesota has a fairly good, improved system of providing the data every year to us. We get this remarkably simple, easy to-read thing that tells you where your kids fall within the scheme of things. It’s almost like a gasoline gauge. You can look at it pretty quickly and know whether or not you’re full or on empty.

We fought the state for a few years to make it simple. Before, they used to send us this NASA-like project on one page with all these different font sizes and colors and all kinds of things going on. I used to have seizures just looking at it. Now, they have made it remarkably simple, so a lot of parents feel a bit more confident.

Two types of parents help me directly answer your question. There are parents who already are experiencing some form of trouble or some sort of concern, either their kids are dyslexic or not reading well or falling behind or being put in the wrong study group, and those parents wonder why. That group of parents has a different view of testing results and wants to see what tests say. They are trying to get to the bottom of something, and this cuts across class and race lines.

Parents who don’t have something very specific going on can be way more trusting that things are generally good. They see less of a need to talk about test scores until there’s a problem. Or until they get one of those state reports that says their kid has veered a little bit less than average. Then, suddenly, they want to know why and dig in.

It is incumbent on a lot of us to not just deal with the parents that have a problem. They’re easier to find and work with. The parents who believe they don’t have a problem present the biggest opportunity to inform about test results and make smart voters.

What would you want your districts measuring in this pandemic? If there are some gaps around a state assessment or the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), what do you want districts paying attention to?

My canard about NAEP is that I like direct assessments. They tell me if kids are reading and doing well in math, the gateway subject matter that they need to do better in than everything they do in life. NAEP is based on a sample of kids. It tells you that someone in this room is pregnant. The testing I like tells me that my wife is pregnant.

I am more interested in knowing where we have specific issues and problems, and with which kids. Do their parents know they need additional help?

I hope that districts have embedded in their distance learning systems something that lets them know where kids are in their learning. We need a baseline of where kids are and if they have fallen.

What do you wish parents better understood about assessment and instruction? 

I wish we were better at teaching parents how to understand assessment as a tool for not just when your kid is doing poorly, but for when your kid is doing well and could be doing better. We have many kids who are proficient and doing well in life, but they’re not making years’ worth of growth.

There is a false, middle-class belief that everything is basically OK. I wish we could show parents how to be even more diagnostic about what their kids are doing. The ones that have that false sense of safety about where their kids are could understand that their child is above the curve a little bit, but they could be even higher in their work.

There’s a difference between data and information. You have data and all these things that can confuse people in terms of stats and results and medians that mean something to the great thinkers who spend a lot of time living in it. But how does that turn into information? How does that become informative for parents, educators, principals, superintendents, state lawmakers, the general public and even journalists? How do we make sure that those things translate into information?

I was a school board member. The training is terrible. You are now the governor of an educational institution, and they’re going to regularly bring you data. But they’re not going to make it information, and it’s your job to be a good governor. It’s a problem.

That’s a good point. You may get information about your child that shows they are average in this particular group. But if your child is average in a very low-performing school, you, the parent, may not be getting the information you need to make decisions about your child and their school.

Yes, and you may encounter people who use psychometrician methodology voodoo to explain things like cut scores. They may sound fancy and right, but you need people who practice the KISS method: Keep it simple, stupid.

I have sat on panels where people start getting into cut score terminology and things like that. We lose the moment that happens. It’s immediate; you can see it in the room.

We also can get too fancy layering on indicators, measures and other points. It makes it harder to know what the data all means. It makes it harder to have an honest discussion of why the information is even important.

What would you say to parents about the importance of comparable data? People, as you said, want to know how their child is doing specifically, and that is important. But comparability allows a school to see how it stacks up against others around the state, not just within their own district.

One group of parents already know it’s important because it’s the way they buy houses. They already understand comparability.

I worry about the other group of parents, who don’t look at the world that way. People say all test scores don’t matter, and measuring schools doesn’t matter. That is, until you go on Zillow, and you’re looking for a house, and there’s a big red dot on the school that says, “Don’t buy this house.” All the fuzziness about what test scores mean goes away.

I do think that there is a need to tell parents how their kid is doing specifically, just by themselves, and how they are doing, matching up against a state norm or others. You can then know when to be alarmed or not. That’s important information to know too.

Is there anything about testing that you would like to say that we didn’t ask you?

We need to make sure that civil rights organizations get an understandable briefing at the beginning of the year that helps them as they develop their agendas. We need to make the data real for them so it hopefully shows up on their agenda.

My team has made me promise to never say this term anywhere. But since they are not on the call, I get to say it: If you have information and you have activism, you have infovism.

I mention that because activism is so uninformed sometimes. If the people with the information married activists, we would be in great shape.

And teachers may not be trained in what all this data means. They may not be informed about the role of assessment and the importance of an aligned strong curriculum. We didn’t spend a lot of time on assessment during my teacher training. 

Yes, and that’s a problem because teachers are very trusted communicators to the public. But if they’re uninformed, they’re not infovists. That’s a big problem.

When I was on the school board in Minneapolis, we had teachers complaining about assessments all the time. Our board told the superintendent to bring us a list of every test that we use in the district. The list came back with about 30 different tests.

The majority of those were teacher-created. They weren’t mandated by the state or federal government. So, teachers were fine with the unstandardized tests. They only had a problem with the summative one that was used for making policies. I thought that was interesting.

Anne Wicks is the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Education Reform Initiative.

William McKenzie is senior editorial advisor at the George W. Bush Institute.

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