Thursday, January 11, 2018

Six: Ready or Not

This (school) year, I have built a story about our high school seniors...and one for our sixth graders...and now I'm moving down to kindergarten. For our sixth data story, we are looking at early learning data. What does it mean to be kindergarten ready?

As usual, I didn't set out to tell this particular tale. I was totally going down a different path, thinking about student absences and creating some sort of strip plot...and as I doodled over dinner on the longest night of the year, The Muse came calling. And in about 10 minutes, I had the whole thing in mind about how to present our early learning data.

Our district has been participating in the state-mandated WaKIDS assessment for three years. Teachers collect observational data about each student's development in six categories: social-emotional, physical, cognitive, language, literacy, and math. There is a 9-level scale for each item, with birth to age 1 being the lowest and third grade being the highest. Only eight of these are shown below, as no child in our district was rated the lowest level in any category.

The Data
This story was one of the easiest in terms of managing the data files. The state provides us with a file of everything submitted by teachers, and then I merged in a few other demographic and program pieces. This time around, there were no statistical shenanigans, just total counts for each category and level.

The Build
Do you remember these? Usually built with pony beads, they have made various appearances throughout the years to signify friendship, solidarity, remembrance, or another purpose. Perhaps you wore them on your shoelaces or the lapel of a jacket.

If you haven't seen these sorts of things, they are constructed from safety pins and beads. I remembered them when I was still pondering the strip plot idea and veered off into how I might be able to string or hang beads from a line. Once I thought of the safety pins, I made an immediate connection to early learning (even if we don't use safety pins for diapers anymore).

After I had the concept, I knew I could build a safety pin with beads for each of our 486 kindergartners. Some back of the envelope calculations showed that I could fit 6 beads (at .5 - .6 mm each) on a 2" safety pin. This would allow me to show all six data points of the assessment, using beads with colours matching the developmental levels indicated by the teacher.

But what else could I encode, I wondered?

In divining the entrails of the data, I noticed that there were a few student attributes that might be worthy of further attention. First was gender. It is not uncommon to hear parents talking about "red shirting" young boys to give them an additional year to mature...but do the data bear this out? I ordered two types of safety pins to help us look at this: gold for girls and silver for boys. The second piece was a student's birthdate. We have a cutoff of September 1. If a student is not 5 years old by then, they can't enroll. But does that really matter---are older students more "ready"? I decided to encode this using different colours of map pins to attach the safety pins to the display. I picked red (because it was not one of the 8 colours of beads) for students who had a birthdate less than six months prior to the first day of school and white pins for older students. Finally, what about low income status? I didn't want to mark this by individual student, due to privacy issues; but, as I organized the pins by school, I decided to order the schools by their overall percentage of students who have low income status. That would give a general comparison. I did look at and consider race; however, I did not represent it with this display because (a) it was actually not as influential a factor as the others for this particular data set and (b) I couldn't represent it as accurately as it deserves. By this, I mean that with student privacy laws, by the time I made a pin showing race and gender, it could become very easy to associate the data with a particular child...especially as most of our schools might only have only one kindergarten student of a particular race. (Yes, we are very white.)

So here, is the final display:

The pins are organized in the space for each school by those kindergartners who were reported as most ready (all purple---or better---in the six categories) to least ready. As you can see in this broad shot, the school with the greatest percentage of low income students (PGS) has a lot lower proportion of all purple pins as compared to BLE, our school with the lowest percentage of low income students.

Here you can see the red vs. white map pins. Do you notice how many white are at the top and how many red are toward the bottom? This seems to tell us that age does matter a bit. Older kids are more ready. And I like seeing this, because while we might be able to talk about potential bias when it comes to gender, teachers don't have birthdays memorized or have an obvious way to connect them while working with students.

It's harder to see in the picture at the left (but you can click to embiggen), but gender also seems to play a role in how students are viewed in terms of readiness. Remember, gold pins represent girls...and by the time we get down to the bottom two rows, there is a lot of silver showing. I do wonder whether bias factors in here. I also noticed when I put the pins together that many of the girls were not rated as highly in math as they were in other areas. Hmmm.

Finally, you might notice the labels beneath each board. These are actually little booklets for each school with charts that show aggregate data. Viewers can look at the distributions for each category or for the demographics of the school. If you would like to see these charts, additional photos, or explore the web-based data workbook, please visit our district web site for this display.

Lessons Learned
One of my colleagues has said that this is his favourite story that I've built. I am very happy with it---we encoded a lot of information into a small space and were able to include every child. The pins jingle and move. The paper sparkles and feels sandy. Light refracts through the beads to make them glitter in the light. I think folding in elements of touch and sound is a critical piece of this work. I know that those aspects don't represent anything in particular about the data, but they invite people to ponder...and that's what I'm after: Engagement.

I also think it's interesting to compare schools and see how they used the scale for this assessment. One school (LRE) only used three levels---all of their pins only have purple, blue, or green beads. Another school (PGS) used eight levels and really differentiated. One school (MTS) is very large (106 kinders), but only 2 were rated as being kindergarten ready in all six areas, while all the other schools had a much larger proportion.

As we get ready to work with our community about registering kindergartners for next year, it will be interesting to think about how this display impacts our conversations. I already had one co-worker spend some time looking at it as she thinks about whether or not to enroll her son with a July birthday in school next year.

I am more than halfway through this project of building large-scale, analog, interactive data displays. My goal is to build ten...and I have four more to dream up and construct. The Muse will be back. I don't know when or what she'll bring, but I will be ready.