When middle school principals are asked: “How’s the school doing at getting 8th graders to understand algebra,” they are too often tongue-tied. Most principals reply to the parent’s complex question by reducing it to one factor, like this:

“We’re doing better than last year. This year, 65 percent of the kids who took algebra scored proficient or higher, compared to last year, when 52 percent reached that mark.”

This ignores the fundamental matter of what portion of the eighth-grade class took algebra in those two years. This would be like telling every woman who is 5’10” to buy only one size of pantyhose. It is reducing a multi-dimensional question to one dimension only.

This reductionist impulse leads to ripped pantyhose and misplaced students. I believe the problem is that educators have been denied the visual-analytical tools they need to understand the several related dimensions of the problem. Certainly they are capable of answering that question. My certainty comes from pantyhose sizing charts.

These sizing charts offer evidence that every woman has mastered a two-dimensional scatterplot. Of course, they’re motivated by a very personal cause: buying pantyhose they can fit into. All it takes is: (a) an appreciation of the infinite variations of the human form; (b) a correct measurement of both height and weight; (c) and an understanding that three-dimensional human life forms can be squeezed more or less into two dimensional measurement estimates.

What a middle school principal needs in order to answer the parent’s question in fuller form is to see, at a minimum:

  • the participation rate of eighth-graders in algebra in the current year for his school, compared to those of 8th graders in his district, his county and the state;
  • the outcomes of test-taking in algebra for 8th graders in the school, district, county and state, measured at the level of understanding that has become the defacto standard: proficient and advanced;

Expressing those results in scatterplot form should be easy, since the California Standard Test results have been published consistently for 13 years. Those results include participation rates and outcomes at the grade level.

But those scatterplots are not in the test report set created by its publisher, Educational Testing Service. Nor are they available from the California Department of Education. That’s why we created them at School Wise Press, as part of our assessment consultancy, which we named the Owl Corps. It was our way of helping leaders see, literally with their eyes, if they were doing better or worse than other middle schools, with their district’s policy for determining who takes algebra in grade eight.

The answer every principal should be able to form to this parent’s question, then, should be:

“Among other middle schools like ours in the county, that decided to place between 60 to 75 percent of our eighth graders in algebra, our middle school was 12th out of 45 in getting kids to the level of proficient. But even better news was the improvement we noted over the past three years, as we moved from 28th to 12th in our county ranking.”

Clear data visualizations would make these conclusions visible. It would be no more complex than a body-mass index chart, and less complex than a pantyhose sizing chart.

I think if teachers can read both of these everyday measures of their own body’s vital signs, they are certainly capable of reading their students’ vital signs, as well.

We’re ready to test our hunch by creating those visualizations and inviting educators to use them. You can begin here.