Schools Seek Answers from ‘Data Queen’

By Andrea V. Brambila

Walk into the office of the head data-cruncher at Berkeley Unified School District and you’ll find two accessories that might seem out of place: a wood-framed hourglass on a glossy new desk and a glittering tiara crowning the occupant.

“I call myself the Data Queen,” said Phyllis Jane “P.J.” Hallam, the district’s new director of assessment, evaluation and research. The hourglass is a gift from a friend who noted Hallam’s love of measuring.data-queen092707-0013.jpg

A graduate of UC Berkeley’s Literacy Assessment doctorate program, Hallam, 53, was hired over the summer to start the new three-person department dedicated to using objective and accurate data to improve student achievement and evaluate programs.

The new department, funded as part of a $19 million school parcel tax known as Measure A, reflects a new call for data-driven decision making in California schools.

“Most decisions are made based on emotions,” said Mark Coplan, the district’s public information officer. “There’s no data to substantiate that programs are valuable.”

For example, some have criticized the district for not doing enough to close the achievement gap between white, African American and Latino students. The new department hopes to take a quantitative view of that problem and use data in new ways to solve it.

So far this year, Hallam has worked on helping teachers and principals use Datawise MEASURES, a student information data-analysis system. Although the district first bought the system two years ago, only a few hired consultants and technically inclined teachers have used it.

But in the short time the department has existed, Datawise has been used considerably.

To give elementary school teachers an idea of students’ aptitude at the beginning of the year, the department produced reports detailing writing, math and reading test scores from last year to help teachers plan their instruction. Middle school teachers asked for a more historical view of their students’ abilities, and they received reports of students’ scores for the past three years.

Hallam’s hire also illustrates Berkeley Unified’s multiple-factor approach to measuring student achievement and holding people accountable for their progress, or lack thereof.

Whereas state and federal measures are largely based on standardized test scores, district math and writing exams are teacher-scored and open-ended questions are asked.

Hallam favors teacher-based assessments of a wide range of student work at different points of the school year, rather than annual standardized multiple-choice tests. She became interested in the approach as a humanities teacher at Riverview Middle School in Bay Point when she realized the standardized tests were not taking into account her students’ interests or cultural backgrounds.

That meant some of her students did not understand the questions and were left behind, she said. She pointed to a question that mentioned pirate’s “booty,” which can mean loot to some people, or rear end to others.

“The problem with the multiple-choice standardized tests now is that there’s an over-emphasis on them,” Hallam said. “They’re OK for ballpark estimates, but they’re being misused by policymakers for graduation decisions, retention decisions, rewarding and punishing schools.”

Hallam pointed to the No Child Left Behind Act as an example. The federal act requires schools to meet certain state-set accountability benchmarks based on standardized test scores. Her department spends too much time, she said, getting the required standardized tests ready, keeping them secure and gathering student information to meet the federal law’s requirement that 95 percent of certain student groups — such as disabled or African American students — take the tests.

She finds it annoying that a school’s Adequate Yearly Progress, the federal standard used to show how much a school has improved, is based on just two years of data instead of multiple years or the results of other, teacher-based assessments.

For elementary and middle schools, whether or not a school makes AYP is based on scores for the California Standards Tests, which are part of the STAR tests. At the high school level, it is based on scores for the California High School Exit Exam.

“It’s not a valid use of data,” said Hallam, because test scores don’t measure whether a student has a headache or is in a bad mood that day.

Although she hopes Berkeley Unified’s accountability measures will be a model for the nation, she is skeptical that politicians will be open to less clear-cut types of student assessment.

“Standardized tests appeal to politicians as a quick and easy solution,” she said, “but learning is complex.”

Also published in the Berkeley Voice.

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