He Tests... He Scores!
On April 27th, 2014, the Dallas Stars were only a few game minutes away from an improbable 4-2 home victory over the conference-leading Anaheim Ducks. It had been a storybook game with glorious hits, highlight reel scoring, and the sort of scrap and grit that made the Stars (rather than their opponents) the Disney-movie-ready heroes - IF they could tie up this best-of-seven series and force their way back to Anaheim for a final brouhaha.
Then, with seconds to go, the Ducks tied up the game and forced an overtime - in which they quickly knocked the Stars out of the playoffs. It was a crushing defeat, and - if you were the sort to be on Twitter during such things - one laden with personal animosity slung freely between fans on both sides.
The Stars season was over, and in the worst possible way - they didn't have to lose. They had this. It was... they just... well, damn.
And yet, after a few moments of shock and vicarious trauma on the part of 19,363 fans at the American Airlines Center, applause began breaking out, then swelling, then exploding. The team stayed at center ice and raised their sticks, and the home crowd adored them for a bit before a microphone was handed to Captain Jamie Benn, who thanked the crowd for their support, said all the right things about the team, and promised they'd be back next season badder and better.
It's been a few weeks, but if you ask the casual fan, the die-hard Stars supporter, any other team or owner or commentator in the NHL, this past season was a huge success. Not because of where they'd ended up, exactly, but because of how far they'd come.
By what should one measure success in professional hockey? It's so relative, and it matters deeply where you started, what adversities you've faced, how much support you've had, how much talent you have to work with, Finances matter, and sometimes there's a fair amount of luck involved.
There’s one clear measure - each season one team takes home the Stanley Cup, and the rest don't. Some make it to playoffs, and the rest don't.
In a few days, I'll be entering final grades for this semester. I hate it. I try to be firm - you get what you get – but in reality I’ll end up browsing the final scores of each class, noting especially which students ended up a few points away from a different letter grade one way or the other.
What exactly am I attempting to measure here? Is it how much they've done? How far they've come? How well they've met state curriculum expectations? What they can DO decently in terms of social studies skills? Effort? Cooperation? Whether or not they're a huge pain in the @**?
What am I measuring each time I give one of these 'grades'?
I'll go back to my hockey analogy, mostly because it's easier to find supporting visuals that way. How do we measure success in a specific game? Not just for the team, but for the individual stu-- er... players? What do we measure and thus value in hockey?
Scoring a goal. Stopping the other team from scoring a goal. Taking the puck away from a player from the other team. Passing the puck to a player from your team. After that it gets complicated.
I mean, sure it sounds easy - you gotta score goals, right? So, score a goal, you get a point. Maybe you helped score the goal instead, so... pass to a guy, and he scores the goal? That's also a point. Easy.
But the other team is trying to score also. Huh. OK, OK... if you're on the ice when your team scores a goal, that's +1 for you. If you're on the ice when the other team scores on you, that's -1. Keep a running total, and it's clear: the higher your +/-, the better player you are. So, like, Sidney Crosby finished the season at +18. That's pretty good. Down from +26 last season, but there were other factors, because -
No! No other factors - we have to keep this measurable. No other factors. Let's not run away from high standards and accountability.
T.J. Oshie, +19. Jamie Benn, +21. Alex Ovechkin, -35. Ryan Getzlaf, +28. Seth Jones, -23.
Wait - that can't be right. Alex Ovechkin is one of the best-known and most valuable players in the league. Is that a typo? And Seth Jones - he's going to be great. Young kid out of Dallas, playing for Nashville - I mean, what he DID this year for his age and background!
Yeah, OK - there must be other factors. Dammit.
If you're a sports statistics person, or if you've seen Moneyball, you know it gets pretty weird pretty quickly when you try to figure out which numbers matter the most. Under what circumstances were these players on the ice? For how long, and how often, and during which games? Who were they on the ice with? (Turns out it's much easier to score goals if you're surrounded by other great players than if you're the only guy with a clue on the team.)
All sorts of information can be useful to improve coaching, or help players improve their performance. Very few bits of information are useful in isolation to decide who the 'good' players are and who the 'bad' players are. Often we can't even agree what those terms mean.
Maybe you have a defenseman with lots of blocked shots to his credit. That's great - the other team can't score if he's throwing his body in the way of the puck. Valid thing to measure. But, wait... why are opposing teams taking so many shots while he's on the ice? Shouldn't the priority be to get the puck away from them and send it back up the ice with one of your guys? Maybe there's more to that measurement...
You have a goalie with a great save percentage. That's awesome - that is, in fact, their primary job. How many games is that percentage based on? In what circumstances did he play? He may be on a team that could pretty much leave their net empty and have no worries because their defensive play is so strong. On the other end of the ice, though, is a goalie working miracles but losing games because the team sucks. So save percentage is an important number, but not nearly as simple as it first appears.
You got a guy with too many penalty minutes, too much time in the box leaving your team short-handed? Yeah, that's probably bad. Well, unless they were 'good' penalties to take - defending star players, or establishing physical presence on the ice. Maybe it's just poor officiating - a ref having an off night can swing the entire dynamics of the game. Things like that can impact someone's entire learn - er, I mean playing experience over time.
The measurements all matter. They all mean things. But the more you try to narrow everything down to one number, or statistic, or letter, or percentage, the less sense that system makes.
Which brings me back to these end-of-year grades. I'm a huge fan of accountability, and high standards, and that children are the future, teach them well and let them lead the way – all that stuff. But I'm having a hard time believing my own grading is a useful part of that.
The 'intentional non-learners' - as we call them around here - are easy. They wouldn't do it, didn't know it, tuned out for whatever reason, and they have a single percentages in all categories as a result. The overachievers are pretty easy as well. Although I'm not always sure how much they've learned, they've turned in everything twice, done the extra credit, brought the Starbucks gift card at Christmas, and have triple digit percentages.
But as I once again try to boil down everything a kid is, or has done, or has learned, or has survived, or could be, or should do, or... other stuff - I find myself increasingly cynical about the value of a single number, or a single letter. Better I should predict their day based on their astrological sign – at least that gives me TWELVE options with which to overgeneralize.
I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that our current grading system is the worst one there is except for all of the other systems that have been tried (I might have the details a little fuzzy). The thing is, we haven't really tried that many others. And yes, I realize as soon as we open that door, there are huge arguments to be had about what we should measure and how and yada yada yada.
But I'd much rather have those arguments and risk doing it wrong in a variety of new ways than to be at peace with the current system. As sports aficionados of all sorts wrestle with evaluating performance on deeper and more meaningful levels, and in evolving ways, perhaps educators - striving to prepare our lil' darlings for the future – should at least loosen our grip on yet another relic of the sort of factory-system education which lost its relevance nearly a century ago.
Oh, and #GoStars.
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