Data dominance through educational testing can sink Black gains


My student was writing a paper in favor of living together before marriage, which incidentally, he was doing with his girlfriend — whom he planned to marry, he said. Their parents did not approve. My writing assignment was helping him think through this real problem. But, he told me, his research showed that only a low percentage of co-habiting couples actually married.

So how are you going to overcome that data and win your argument, I asked.

He said he was going to leave it out.

My advice was to question the data. Engage it. Data is fallible, because people conduct their lives with more than facts and numbers. Numbers said his living arrangement likely would not end in marriage. Did that mean he and his girlfriend were going to live apart? No, it did not. They were going ahead to find out what happened for them.

Learning is measured by more than test scores. When the Michigan Department of Education released numbers on student learning in August, the headline was lukewarm optimism about the data. It said: “2023 State Test Scores Improve in Many Grades in Math and Science, Social Studies, and English Language Arts.”

Usually, I am all about optimism, but those test scores, while going in the right direction, showed very slight gains in learning. The average improvement is about 1% at most, except in fifth grade social studies, where scores went from 15.5% to 18.6%. That’s a 3.1% increase in pupils meeting the grade level standard — for pupils who can show their learning on a test. That’s important.

Taking a test is a skill. Not everyone can do that. Anxiety about taking the test can torpedo the result. An opinion article in the journal Diverse Issues in High Education declared in its headline: “We Know More Than What Those Damn Tests Claim to Measure: How Tests are Inequitable for Black and Other Minoritized Students.” That says it all.

The thing about numbers is they can tell any story any way the story teller wants the story told. Or to paraphrase Mark Twain, “Figures lie, and liars figure.”

State Board of Education President Pamela Pugh stressed in her comments about the 2023 test scores that the point of education is not to produce a widget, but to shape a person. “We need to continue to invest in our schools and educators and provide the supports needed to help our kids continue to grow academically, socially and personally.”

The big test is Michigan’s 3rd grade English Language Arts. It tests reading.

Michigan’s third-grade reading law, passed in 2016, called for holding back third-graders — 8-year-olds — who cannot read at grade level. The M-Step assessment test score went from 41.6% in 2022 to 40.9% in 2023, a slide of  0.7 percent.

In terms of proficiency, the third-grade reading score for in-person districts went from 45.9% in 2019 to 41.7% in 2023. For districts instructing remotely, third-grade reading bombed: 24.9% in 2019 to 19.9% in 2023 — a five-point loss.

The more narrow the data is sliced, the worse it looks. So why look at it?

The research shows that third-grade pupils reading at the second-grade level or lower risk not graduating high school. Our prisons are filled with people who read poorly and did not graduate high school.

This year, Michigan legislators approved dropping the law’s hold ‘em back requirement, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed it into law, thankfully. Holding back pupils doesn’t work either, educators say.

Education can be used as a tool to keep people out. Historically, intellectual bias has been used against enslaved Black people, for whom knowing how to read and write was illegal: poll tests for Black voters, but not white voters.  Practices that undermine learning include separate but equal, segregation and the cost of housing near good schools.

Even those who prevailed against the odds to educate and train doctors had their efforts thwarted by a different value system.

The Flexner Report of 1910 reflected an “enchantment” with the German model for medical education. It emphasized scientific knowledge and its advancement, according to a National Library of Medicine report. But once instituted in American medical schools, the “hyper-rational system of German science created an imbalance in the art and science of medicine.” Still, it became the standard. The result? All but two Black medical schools in the nation closed.

One only had to hear of the experiences of Black teachers in the Lansing School District to understand how values shape education. About a dozen Black teachers — mostly men — spoke about the discipline or push back they experienced in the course of doing their jobs, including their advocacy for Black students.

Speaking at a highly attended community meeting last week sponsored by Lansing People’s Assembly/One Love Global, these teachers feared that if Blacks are pushed from their teaching positions, Black students will have a difficult time succeeding in school. All endorsed the idea that Black teachers and administrators make a difference for Black students just by being there. It was heartening to see the Lansing Board of Education president and superintendent listening.

Facts and especially numbers can be the gold standard in education, but a more comprehensive view may work better for Black students and their schools. Data isn’t everything. 



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