Sunday, August 16, 2015

Anatomy of a Design Build

Like many school districts, we have new data this fall. The state has changed to Smarter Balanced assessments to measure student knowledge and skills with Common Core State Standards. One of the challenges associated with presenting these data is the inevitable effort to compare them with scores from previous years. But they do not represent the same things. And so began the challenge to develop this report:

Subject areas are organized across the top. Grade levels are on the horizontal. The blue squares represent grades and subjects assessed in 2015. The large numbers in the center show the percent of students meeting the standard, with the distribution of scores shown by the column charts at the bottom of the square. Historical data are shown by the line graphs in the grey squares.

It is built in Excel (of course). On another sheet is a table listing the various schools, grade levels assessed, subjects, school years, and scores. A pivot table with this information feeds the report you see above.

I'm mostly happy with this layout and format. I would still like to tweak some of the colours, but overall, I think I've solved most of the issues with representing the data. But it took awhile to get this far.

In the beginning, there was a suggestion from one of my supervisors to offer something like what you see on the right. This is what another district in the area provides to schools and the public. I showed it to one of our principals and he said it made his eyes bleed. I agreed with that sentiment. We can do better, I said.

It's not that the information provided here is bad, it's that a pdf of a spreadsheet does not take advantage of what data visualization can offer to make meaning. It has much of the same information I developed for my version. We just used two different approaches.

Originally, I started with something similar. I pulled  demographic and program data and added some sparklines and arrows to show change.

But I decided that this was a stupid idea before I got too far down the road with it. It was way too hard to scale the graphs along the same axes. This is an important thing to do to enable comparisons. But there is just too large of a range to represent in a small space. Not to mention this layout is boring. Seriously. Yes, I know it's half finished, but no bells and whistles involving fonts and headers are going to make this version anything other than a snoozefest.

So, I tried something else.

This is where I started to play with the idea of tiles. I wanted a cool color (as opposed to a warm one) and decided to look at purple as an option. This version is slightly better, but not by a lot. Looking at it, I realized something very important: Almost none of this information is useful. Does anyone, especially a school leader, really care about the year-by-year percentages of Asian students (for example)? It's not actionable data. You're not going to go out and recruit more Asian children if you notice your percentage slipping. There's no action plan a school would make to decrease the enrollment of girls. This is not to say that viewing overall change wouldn't yield some insights, but the year-by-year review isn't very helpful. So I started over. Again.

Third time's the charm, right?

I won't claim this is perfect, but we've come a long way, baby. All that demographic and program data? Now in one tidy bar chart on the left (under "% of overall enrollment"). The five-year change is shown on the far right. The stuff in the middle? All new. Kids are more than the sum of their test scores. So, I've included some additional demographic information about absences and discipline. Now we have some conversation starters.

I did the achievement data next. This is the page at the beginning of this post. I played around a bit with colors and format, but the tiles have been a constant.

Feedback has been mostly positive, but I'm still tweaking things. What would you want to see? How should we show it? Anything we should remove or represent differently?