Pinball Wizard

Last week, my district released a rather new spin on test score reporting: some data cruncher plugged everything into a Google motion chart.  The end result reminds me of nothing quite so much as that one thrilling instant in pinball when, inexplicably, you hit the one flashing spot that suddenly releases a hail of silver balls.

For the sake of anonymity, I’m not telling you my district or linking to our actual Motion Chart (the price of which, even if just in Data Cruncher Opportunity Cost, would probably have kept our kindergarteners in glue sticks for at least six months).  Content yourself with the generic example, but at one ball per school, you’re gonna need to imagine at least one hundred balls, jumping through at least four data points each.

http://code.google.com/apis/visualization/documentation/gallery/motionchart.html

It is crazy, when you think about each of those little balls.  Each ball a school–each little dot representing anywhere from 20 to 1000 students.  Each data point a different group of kids: on the macro scale, as one batch ages out and another ages into the testing range, and on the micro scale as small handfuls of kids move or opt out or–yes, this is my district–die violently on the streets beside the more beleaguered schools.

And each little ball, one snapshot in time–one group of young people, sharpening pencils and filling in bubbles while their teachers pace in the background, knowing the stakes.  Which kid had a cold that day?  Whose parents paid for tutoring?  So many things out of everyone’s control.

The Motion Chart data approach appeals to one’s competitive side: watching my school’s little bubble bounce through the years, I heard the inner part of myself cheering it on up.  Clicking on the other bubbles to see who we ranked against, feeling a ridiculous, tribalistic pride.  Almost, for a moment, seeing another group of ten- year-olds the way I might have seen the other football team in college–we beat them last round, let’s get the axe again.

I played around a bit, then, with the absurdity of it all.  The Motion Chart format invites a wide variety of ridiculous uses: especially compelling to me was clicking two schools and running the chart, essentially “racing” one school against another.  My last school against my current one, our school against the middle school down the street…

And then, the logical conclusion.  My district, like many large urban districts, has a stark disparity between the “hills” schools and the “flats” schools–where the money is, and where the money….isn’t.    There have been strong, solid efforts to increase family choice among district schools, but our polar ends are still very, perhaps shamefully, distant.

I raced what is widely known as one of the lowest-performing, most challenged elementary schools in the district against its exact opposite–one of the schools in the million dollar neighborhoods.  Picked two more, and did it again.

Two thoughts: one, the absolute heartbreak of the two inches on that graph separating the starting points for Hills and Flats–I had to zoom out to make a screen large enough to see both dots at the same time.  So many folks want teachers to stop making excuses–to not talk about things like preschool and breakfast when we talk about the things that kids need to do well.  But we can shift away from the human stories and see the same things in little moving dots: where the Hills start from is where the Flats are supposed to go.

Two, the hopeful upwards climb of those dots in the Flats, almost without exception showing strong growth over time.  The same schools so often seen as hotbeds of failure are actually sometimes catalysts for remarkable growth–the kind of numeric improvement that is beyond the range of your average hills schools, because you just can’t go too many points up from 92 points on a hundred-point scale.  I straddle both sides of the test score divide–although I can rant with the best of them about what we do with high stakes testing, I firmly believe that there is value in progress monitoring, and we might as well use the stuff that we’ve got.  The data isn’t everything, but in the case of troubled schools more than doubling measured reading proficiency,  it’s an awful lot better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Hundreds of little dots, moving around.   There’s something so attractive, I guess, in boiling the world down like that.  Watching the balls climb and dip on my computer screen, I felt my finger moving without my conscious will to do it, reaching for a dot to trace its movement upwards.  Wanting to give it another little nudge.

It just isn’t that simple, though, is it?  I wonder, sometimes, what it would take to make the folks who make the choices really understand all the worlds behind those dots.

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