Last week I experienced what all teachers have experienced. While grading a district assessment, I saw scores that were way lower than I would have hoped for. Some students made careless errors and forgot to answer parts of a question, others just had a day where the knowledge I know they have wasn’t reflected in what was on the papers in front of me. I was texting with my fellow #worldgeochat moderator and friend, @ecasey77 when we came to the realization, data never tells the whole story.

The data that is so important to some doesn’t show what students really know. I wish that the data keepers could see what I see. So let’s talk about three things that the data doesn’t show, but show me that my students are learning.


I learn more about what my students know or don’t know from discussions than anything else. The questions a student asks and the responses they give tell me so much. Sometimes it’s a one on one conversation between me and the student. With these discussions I can scaffold to help students of all levels show what they know. It doesn’t look the same for every student, but it helps me determine what a student really knows.

Socratic Seminars are another way to do this. You can tell which students know a lot by observing not just who contributes the most (which can be misleading) but also by how students respond. Plus, when you find ways to include more students (use of a mute button, silent virtual discussions, etc.) you really get a sense of what students know.

Exit Slips

Perhaps the easiest way to find out what students know is to ask the most basic of questions on their way out the door. Whether you go old school and give students a note card to write down their response to a prompt, or you use a Google Form to put all your students’ answers in  one column of a spreadsheet, it is a great way to find out if you hit or missed your lesson target.

Formative Assessments

There are so many examples of formative assessments. I could do an entire blog post on them, or you could just read this one from Edutopia.

As Ed and  I texted more about how the data doesn’t tell the whole story, we had another realization. We had taken the microview and only applied it to our assessment. When we looked at it again from a wider point of view, we realized that how we look at nations comes from data as well.

We look at economic indicators, demographic data, freedom scores. Sites like Gapminder, the CIA Factbook, and Freedom House give great statistical information about the world.

The data tells some really important information, but nothing close to the whole story. In November 2015 I went to Cambodia with Project Explorer. According to Freedom House Cambodia has a score of 5.5 out of 7 in their freedom ratings. This might not sound bad until you realize that the United States is a 1 and North Korea is 7. The GDP per capita of Cambodia is just over $1000 a year. When you look at those numbers you see a country with very little freedom and very little economic development. But having spent 12 days there I understand it’s not an accurate picture of Cambodia at all.

Throughout the city of Phnom Penh, there is a new construction everywhere. Skyscrapers, bridges, roads. The country is going through a transformation that isn’t reflected in economic indicators. But perhaps the most amazing thing about Cambodia is that literally everyone (and I am using literally correctly here) that we met was happy and proud of their country. Cambodia has gone through a lot in a short period of time. Forty years ago, genocide happened, cities were abandoned, and fear and brutality were commonplace. While the legacy of this difficult time might be reflected in the data, it isn’t reflected in the people I met who are optimistic about the future of their country.


The same was true in Colombia last summer. Freedom House scores them at 3 out of 7. Their GDP per capita is just over $6000. The historic data also shows a country with a 50 year civil war and a great deal of violence. But again, when you take the time to work the people there, you discover that while the data doesn’t lie, it shows a piece of the story. The Colombian students we met were proud of the peace deal (it would be voted down later) and looking forward to a national goal of having every high school graduate be bilingual. They talked about economic hardships, but also the hope that they would be lessened in future years.

from max 7

So how do we give students a more balanced view of the world? Here’s a list of ideas:

  • Mystery Skype – lets students connect with their peers in another country
  • Picture Studies – a picture is worth a thousand words, so let those words be part of the story
  • Listen to music – @ecasey77 has written about the power of music – and he’s right! It definitely adds to the story!
  • Show trends – if I only look at Cambodia’s GDP per capita today, it seems horrifying. When you realize that in the year 2000 it was less than $300, it shows a growth trend the “developed” world would be very envious of.
  • Offer multiple perspectives – when we only look at a country from the American point of view, we miss so much of what is truly important to that country. When I told American I was going to Colombia, they asked about coffee and cocaine. When I got there, Colombians asked me what Americans thought of their peace deal and future.

Data tells an important piece of the story, but there is so much more. So how else can we help students see the whole picture? What have you done to show more than numbers? Comment below and join #worldgeochat every Tuesday night!


2 thoughts on “Data never tells the whole story

  1. You said it all Chris – data doesn’t show the whole picture standardized tests are a moment in time and there is no way to measure what happened to a student on the way to school or days leading up to the exam. I would only add that another problem with standardized tests is that every school (really every class) is different which is why it’s important for all stakeholders in a school to create that balance and develop a culture of curiosity, critical thinking and exploration that fits their school which means everyone needs to be open to an ever changing culture that supports student learning beyond the textbook and teaching to the test!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this, some great points and ideas to put into practise.

    I agree that standardised tests do not necessarily reflect a student’s true knowledge and understanding as some students are good at tests and others aren’t. Some are good at exam technique and others aren’t even though they both know their stuff. But what’s the alternative?

    Liked by 1 person

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