Q&A With Paige Kowalski: Getting Transparent About Student Data

Oct 12, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Student data. Standardized testing. Accountability. These words set off a lot of big feelings among parents, educators and policymakers — especially fear and anger. Controversies over testing, accountability and data breaches spring up regularly, like wildfires, across the education landscape. 

That’s why brightbeam’s second #SeekingCommonGround Town Hall will focus on data. Our goal is to disarm the often hostile disagreements around data and create a conversation that sheds more light than heat on how data can support student learning. Our national panel of experts and activists will include Paige Kowalski, a national leader in the fight for transparent, accessible data that helps educators target their strategies to help students learn. 

Though Paige’s title is executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, her role could be compared to that of a firefighter. She brings a cool head, strategic vision and the water of clarity to the task of convincing state policy leaders to build useful data systems and craft policies that encourage smart, responsible use of data in schools.

At the same time, she brings a mother’s heart and dedication to the work. She’s the parent of two boys in the Washington, D.C. public schools. She knows families need data to make decisions about choosing good schools and helping their children plan their futures. As she says, “Every family in America should have easy access to information about school performance, programs, opportunities, pathways and outcomes. I do my part to make sure no family stumbles through these critical decision points in the dark.”

We talked with Paige about lessons learned from NCLB regarding effective accountability and what states could be doing to make data more transparent and accessible to parents. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


What have states, districts and schools learned from the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) years about how to use data to benefit kids’ learning?

NCLB changed the conversation around assessment, accountability and data. We would meet principals who said, “We have to use [standardized tests] anyway, so we might as well learn what we can from them about what our students know and don’t know.”

We have to go back further than NCLB to teacher prep and talk about how that has changed, too. Take Teach For America — they don’t train you how to teach per se, they train you how to look at data and assess what you did. They learn how to make sense of data and switch up their strategies to make sure students are learning.

In more traditional teacher prep, it’s not about assessment. For elementary school, there’s pedagogy, but the assessment and switching up instruction based on the data isn’t happening. At that time, you were trained to believe that the way you were trained was the right way to teach. If it didn’t work it was the fault of the family or the student. Now there’s more of a shift.

So, what are the next steps for accountability that supports student learning?

Now we need to change the conversation around time and curriculum.

Teachers know they need the ability to pivot and reteach when students need it, but the curriculum is still linear. Even if a teacher says, “I need to pivot. I have the information I need to pivot — can I pivot?” They’re not always getting resources and support. They need support from their principals and their districts.

How can we use data to address educators’ fears of being held accountable for student performance on standardized tests?

Yes, people got scared of the consequences. How do we move beyond that? Growth data rewards schools that find a way to move students forward whether they reach proficiency or not. Proficiency is correlated to family income; growth is not.

We need to get every student proficient, but we need to acknowledge the schools that are moving kids forward. They are moving mountains.

What kind of data should principals and teachers have? They should know who in their school, in their district, is moving mountains. It may not be wise to learn from the schools where students are at proficiency because those results could just be a reflection of family income. If you have low growth and low proficiency, you want to find a school with high growth and see what they are doing and how they’re doing it.

The powers that be in states need to do a better job as the hub to know: Where are those schools in the state? Are there any common threads in what they are doing? How do I help my school(s) do those things?

What do you have to say about data to people who buy the slogan “More Than a Score” as a reason to end standardized testing?

Kids are more than a score. That’s why parents and teachers and communities need contextual data. Too often we just blame the kids — it’s that deficit mentality. Test scores should be more of a reflection on the school than on the student. They’re sitting down and showing us what they know at a moment in time.

These tests shouldn’t be high stakes for students. A high-stakes test for a student should be an AP test, the SAT, a driver’s license test or a military exam.

Too many folks are using standardized test data inappropriately. They are using it to turn a child into a score. They’re using it for gatekeeping. The PARCC test shouldn’t be a high-stakes test for a student or a parent. We’ve allowed too many schools and districts to use these tests inappropriately.

How do we take a longer view of data and watch schools for student success on key milestones like third grade reading or ninth grade on track? Should districts and states be looking more closely at student performance in key years?

We decided to hold schools accountable and not districts. High schools teach students who come from multiple middle schools. Any given high school will have a mix of students with different early learning backgrounds. How do we talk about accountability for the high school when they are getting students with all these disparate experiences? Who is responsible for those experiences?

One could start to look at district accountability. For example, in D.C., principals have very little choice, very little say in what happens with regard to staffing levels. Our local middle school wasn’t teaching Algebra I until recently — they didn’t have the resources to do it. The school couldn’t afford to hire an algebra teacher for just the few kids adults considered to be “ready.”

It’s the same with Advanced Placement. If you only have a few kids ready for the rigor of AP in a high school, how do you hire teachers?

Districts are in charge of access and opportunity in their schools because they are in charge of staffing and budgets, and usually, they make the decisions about who is qualified to take which courses. Parents go into school buildings to advocate for their children, but the school level isn’t the place to make change happen given the lack of power the principal has over staffing and budgets.

At some point, we should be having a conversation about access and opportunity levers. Chicago’s ninth grade on-track benchmark is a great example — you could do that at every student transition point. Then you can tell high schools: here’s your 80% who are on track, and 20% who aren’t. Your job now is to keep those 80% entering on track and help the 20% get back on track. And then, most importantly: Here’s how we (the district) are going to support you in this endeavor.

Parents struggle to get good information on schools. The quality of information on district websites varies widely. How can we help parents get better information faster?

States, districts and schools can help parents get better information faster by making data publicly available in ways that are easy for parents to find, use and understand. But this kind of work isn’t one size fits all. Leaders need to think about what works in their context and for the communities that they serve. For example, Illinois has approximately 800 school districts. I don’t think it makes sense to develop 800 websites with data. And most parents aren’t going to the state website every day.

States could brand their websites.  Every parent knows GreatSchools.org. States don’t need complicated names on their websites. They’ve got to be intentional about getting the word out. School report cards that give parents access to information are very important.

In fact, we’ve showcased the Illinois School Report Card. At a bare minimum, parents should be able to find them easily, in their language, or with clear instructions about how to get to languages other than English. They shouldn’t be written for people with a master’s degree in psychometrics, but for a busy mom who is looking at the website at 10:00 p.m.

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

The Feed


  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...

  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...