Strength in Numbers

Article submitted to San Jose Inside

The Strength in Numbers motto adopted by the Golden State Warriors Basketball team beautifully represents the organization at multiple levels.  The most obvious manifestation of this motto can be found immediately upon opening their App or visiting their Web site where they proudly post their current Win/Loss record along with an abundance of other team statistics.  Wouldn’t it be great if our school districts, schools, and charters in Santa Clara County proudly pronounced their own Strength in Numbers by posting their own comprehensive “Win/Loss” records as evidenced by the percentage of their students who meet or exceed Standards on the State Math and ELA tests?

Sadly, when we visit our School District, County, or State web sites, we often do not see how the children are performing academically.  I have had the opportunity to work with school districts across the country for over 45 years.  Most recently, I have engaged in conducting surveys and focus group meetings with students to find out what is important to them as we initiate District Strategic Planning processes in school districts in Washington State and the State of New York.  For the most part students want their teachers to treat them well and to respect them.  Most importantly, though, they want their teachers to prepare them for their future college and career goals. As we subsequently engage with parents and community members, we find great concordance with the student aspirations.

It is my belief that students, parents, community members, teachers, and administrators should be able to access and interpret comprehensive and complete data visualizations of student academic performance. The interpretation of these data visualizations should lead to the development of student goals for the district and schools that will ultimately support most students in achieving their dreams of being successful in college and career.  To this end, I have begun to build data visualizations of student academic performance for English Language Arts and Mathematics at the following Web site:  This will be a Herculean task but hopefully not a Sisyphean one! Please visit the site, get some data, and cheer me on!

At this site, you will find a Math Data visualization for San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) among others.  You will find two heat mapped tables for student performance.  The first table provides a comprehensive view of student performance on the State Math test for 3 years. The table is organized by grade and by year.  The color continuum goes from red (low performance) to green (high performance).  The State Math Test is aligned with the Common Core State Standards in Math which identify what students should know and be able to do in Math in order to be on track for college and career.  Viewing the table, you can begin to answer the following fundamental questions:

  • Is there overall improvement in grade-level student performance over time?
  • Is there subgroup improvement in grade level student performance over time?

The colored heat maps make it easy to see patterns and to develop findings for these key questions.  Overall, student performance is low (yellow) with most grades consistently scoring under 50% meeting or exceeding Math standards.  There has been some modest improvement at each grade level over 3 years. (with the exception of 11th grade) The Asian subgroup demonstrates consistent high (green) performance over time while the English Learner subgroup demonstrates low (red) performance over time.

The table on the second page shows student performance by year by grade level.  Viewing this table, you can begin to answer the following questions.

  • Is there overall grade-level improvement in student performance within a given year?
  • Is there subgroup grade level improvement in student performance within a given year?

Within any year, there is no improvement in Math performance as you go from 3rd grade to 11th grade in any given year. In fact, there is a drop in performance every year between student Math performance in 3rd grade compared with student Math performance in 11th grade. (Yellow to Red). The Asian subgroup demonstrates consistently high performance (green) across grade levels within any of the three years while Students with Disabilities demonstrate consistently low (red) performance across grade levels within a given year.

You can see that using the colored heat maps. it is easy to discover patterns and findings of student performance.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to access data visualizations of this kind for your school district and school?  Regrettably, neither the County nor the State offer any real help in producing easy to interpret data visualizations.  In fact, the State has been complicit in obfuscating student performance by developing an Academic Indicator Dashboard that contributes to the fog of education.

The state system works like this. If the low end of the scale score band for Level 3 (Meeting Standards) is say 100 scale score points and student A scores 90 scale score points on the Math State Test for their grade level, and student B scores 110 scale score points, and student C scores 115 scale score points, the system subtracts each student scale score from 100 arriving at derived values of -10, +10, and +15. Tallying these values gives you +15 and then dividing by 3 students gives you +5. This value is slightly positive but would receive a green color or a HIGH performance on the Academic Indicator.

This is a flawed process because it is merely a redistribution of “excess” scale score points and does not give you a true reflection of actual student performance. It masks the fact that Student A is not scoring within the proficient band by redistributing scale score points from students B and C to student A. Unfortunately, students B and C will probably not be able to follow Student A to college to help remediate issues he may be having with college level math!  This would be like the NBA allowing teams to take excess points from their Wins and then distributing them to their losing scores in order to bolster their Win/Loss records!

Interestingly, the state does not include 11th grade students in this process and builds a second indicator for 11th graders called College and Career. Could it be that there is not enough extra scale score points to spread around for 11lth graders?

SJUSD reported the positive picture that they were a green school district for the state academic performance indicator on their state mandated Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).  From the previous data visualizations and interpretations, you can see that SJUSD is not yet a highly proficient school district as it relates to student Math performance.

So rather than helping school districts visualize a comprehensive, open, and transparent performance on state tests as an academic accountability indicator, the state of California obfuscates performance using a “Spreading the Scale Score Points” gambit. Of course, the school districts and schools love this system because of its simplicity and ability to mask actual poor performance. The state loves it because it artificially supports their LCAP system as “getting” student results. The adults are saved with this system while the students, parents, and community wait for a true comprehensive picture of student performance

If you are interested in viewing a comprehensive and easily interpretable data visualization of your school or district’s student academic performance in Math, please visit my web site at If you do not see your school or district data visualization, please send me a note via the web site and I will hasten the development of your report.

We need to support our school districts in becoming more like sports team such as the amazing Golden State Warriors who have well-defined goals, metrics to gauge success, and a theory of action to achieve those results.  Let’s help our school districts follow a similar path to success! A little competition is a good idea!

I look forward to the opportunity to continue to share my over 45 years of insights about teaching and learning in the future for San Jose Inside.



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