Data may be a four-letter word, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grow to love using it. Throw in the G-Suite of applications, and using data has never been easier or more meaningful.
Data can be dull
Before going further, let me acknowledge that not everyone loves data. I admit to having been on the receiving end of some deadly dull data presentations. I’m sure you can relate: It’s early in the year and we’re asked to look at several slides of charts, tables and numbers. (We likely have a printed version in front of us as well.) We are then asked to note how one subgroup moved up in one area (applause) while another slipped in a different area (groans of concern). It is not as if we don’t want our school to improve — I certainly do — but somehow studying numbers up and down a page is nowhere near as inspiring as any scene from “Stand and Deliver.”
Like Gruwell, I want my students to become “freedom writers.” Like Keating, I want them to “find their own walk.” Like Escalante, I want them to discover the ganas to succeed.
Passionate teaching and data analysis can go hand in hand
Jaime Escalante may have put on a production every day for his AP Calculus students, but he was also mindful of the bottom line, especially pass rate and average score.
I have long taught AP English. Being passionate has never been difficult. Paying attention to the numbers has been more of a struggle.
I started focusing more on data after attending a Saturday AP seminar two years ago. That session made me face the reality that, although I loved teaching the class and many students seemed to enjoy it as well, the results needed to be better. When the goal is improvement, the first step is acknowledging the problem.
I decided I needed to do more than just give excerpts of released tests, only to forget the results the next day. I needed to record what I was doing, and I needed to record the progress of each student. How else could we establish a baseline and determine growth or lack of growth?
Using Google Sheets
All of my practice test data now gets recorded into one Google Sheets document. For those of you still using Excel, I urge you to shift to Google Sheets. This app includes almost all of the features you were using with Excel, including the same formulas, and it is much simpler. As with an Excel file, I create several sheets (which look like tabs at the bottom). The first is what you see below, a listing of the practice exam excerpts I have given, including a wealth of information about each: date administered, type of passage, number of questions, high/low score, average score/percentage, median score and number of students scoring 60 percent or higher.
|8/22||Prose||To the Lighthouse/Woolf (2012)||14||9||0||4.6||34.8%||4||2|
|9/6||Prose||Life on the Mississippi/Twain (2012)||9||8||2||4.8||57.0%||5||7|
|9/21||Prose||Portrait of a Lady (2013) – GROUP||11||11||4||7.8||71%||9||9|
|10/18||Prose||“Pharmacy” (2013) – untimed/coaching||8||8||6||7||87.5%||7||14|
|12/6||Prose||Northanger Abbey (2014)||12||11||3||5.7||47.8%||5||3|
|1/4||Poetry||Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 60” (2013)||11||11||4||7.3||66.7%||7||8|
|2/10||Poetry||Donne’s “Love” (2014)||11||11||2||5.6||46.6%||5.5||5|
|2/28||Poetry||Pope’s Essay on Criticism (2014)||13||12||0||8||61.5%||8||10|
|4/18||Both||Practice test (2016)||55||45||16||29.3||53.3%||29.5||6|
|Total, other than practice test||52.4%|
After several months a table like this allows me to see the forest despite those pesky trees. Improvement becomes obvious, especially after the first test administration. What is especially impressive is the number of students scoring 60 percent or greater with each administration. A deeper analysis of that success also reveals the unfortunate reality that students near the bottom did not improve at the same rate as those near the top. This revelation helped me group students together, matching those who were more successful with multiple choice with those who struggled.
A more valuable sheet lists the progress of each student.
Data sparks discussion
You might be wondering at this point, “Isn’t this just a big dull table with numbers, much like what put you to sleep at the beginning of the year?”
Well, yes and no. Aesthetically, it’s not attractive, I’ll give you that. But these are my students. In my view I see names, not numbers, in that far left column, and I want every one of them to be progressing upward as we move to the right. I want to see the greens of improvement and the bolded numbers that indicate 60 percent or more. I share the story of growth (or stagnation) with each student, and we use the numbers to spur discussion: What is causing the improvement? Why do you do better on poetry than prose? Why are you continuing to struggle?
Without hard data staring us both in the face, it is easy to just generalize that “We are all improving.” In fact, some students need to try new strategies.
If you look to the far right you can see that not every student passed the test. (A score of 3 or better is considered passing.) But I can tell you, at least anecdotally, that all students took this process seriously because it was so systematic. Also, I am happy to report that this group of students from Stagg scored higher than the national average.
The data listed in this way also reveals surprises. Students 7, 8 and 11 all passed the test even though the practices leading up to the May exam would not have predicted that. (On the other hand, anyone would have expected Student 1 to have passed with flying colors, and yet somehow he did not.)
Since the numbers were so strong last year and the growth so dramatic, you can be sure I have used these numbers to motivate my students this year. Yes, data can motivate.
Process is simple
Creating this table is easy. Most of it is just inputting numbers next to student names. The formulas are basic, easy to learn and (best of all) easy to duplicate. For Student 1, for example, the formula needed to come up with his average is as follows:
To create the same formula for the other students, I follow these steps:
- Copy Student 1’s formula
- Highlight the entire column from Student 2 through Student 16
- Go to the pull down menu: Edit > Paste special > Paste formula only
Voilá. All of the student averages are now in place.
I have students keep their own data in their notebook, but what I keep in this Google Sheets document allows for greater analysis. Having so much raw data is like recording your weight daily — and doing it honestly. If you have a genuine desire to lose weight, then staring at the scale and recording that number everyday and then examining your long-term trends will cause you to reflect upon what you need to do to make the desired change. Similarly, if a teacher wants to make a difference with his or her students, recording data is an honest reminder of where they are and the extent of their progress. The ideal scenario, of course, is students who want to do better working together with a teacher who has the same ambition. Success may not be guaranteed in that scenario, but it is a lot more likely.
I have thousands of files in my Google Drive. And that is no exaggeration. Probably it’s many thousands. Only a few do I mark with a star, effectively bookmarking them (or designating them my “favorites”). My data file is one of those special few. I use it that often.
New year, new uses
Starting this year, I have expanded the use of this document. I now have sheets for essay scores, lit term quiz scores and writing conference comments. This document allows me to keep a comprehensive record of my students from the first week of school.
This is my 33rd year teaching, and I can assure you the passion is still here. I’ve been doing this so long that when I started teaching, the movies referenced at the beginning had not even come out yet. I admit to tearing up then, and still now, at the end of this movie.
Passion is great. It may even be the most important quality for a teacher to have. But if we want results, we need to do a bit more.
Google Sheets is a great way to start.