Is Big Data Ruining Education?

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Standardized tests may not be making kids smarter.

If you've ever had the sneaking suspicion that standardized tests are a waste of time, you're not alone. Simon Rodberg, the District of Columbia International School's founding principal, recently wrote about how the promise that data will improve education is failing students.

"The drive for data responded to a real problem in education, but bad thinking about testing and data use has made the data cure worse than the disease," he wrote.

In 2001, No Child Left Behind mandated more standardized testing and made decisions for schools based on the testing data. Since then, teachers have been stuck devoting tons of time to preparing students for and administering standardized tests rather than teaching.

"'Are the students learning?' is still the most important question, and it can’t be answered without looking at the results," Rodberg continued. "But looking ever-closer, and ever-more-often, won’t make the students learn more. And trying to turn teachers into data analysts instead of helping them to be better teachers is a recipe for disaster."

This would all be understandable if these standardized tests were actually improving learning. But ...

“The best estimate is that test-based accountability may have produced modest gains in elementary-school mathematics but no appreciable gains in either reading or high-school mathematics — even though reading and mathematics have been its primary focus," wrote Daniel Koretz, a Harvard professor who studies testing.

Our culture is data-obsessed, and for good reason. There's real value in measuring and analyzing new things. But the line between using data appropriately and putting blind faith in data is oddly fuzzy.

Data doesn't fall from the sky. Humans decide what to measure, then do their best to measure it. So the values and capabilities of the people in charge determine what data gets collected. And what's true in physics is true in schools: measuring something changes it.

Besides, people can't measure everything. The government might want to measure children's learning. But the closest they can get is making students take standardized tests (determined, again, by the values of those making the tests). Standardized tests leave out plenty. They also measure things that aren't necessarily indicative of learning.

For instance, standardized tests don't ask very difficult questions. Hard questions take a long time to figure out; these tests need questions that students can answer in a couple minutes. So on these tests, the real challenge is spitting out answers quickly. Is answering basic questions fast more important than taking the time to really wrestle with a challenging problem? Maybe not, but it's much easier to measure.

The problem is, things humans can measure aren't necessarily more important than things that humans can't measure. Politicians don't add the value of a vivacious rainforest to GDP, but our bodies still benefit from the oxygen.

"We wanted data to help us get past the problem of too many students learning too little, but it turns out that data is an insufficient, even misleading answer," Rodberg wrote. "It’s possible that all we’ve learned from our hyper-focus on data is that better instruction won’t come from more detailed information, but from changing what people do."

In spite of all these problems, it's no surprise that schools treat children like products to be sorted rather than future scientists and writers. Mandatory education arose with the Industrial Revolution. As workers were sent to factories, children were sent to school to prepare for factory life. Today, businesses may depend more on creative problem-solvers than people who reflexively respond to bells, but schools don't seem to have noticed. It's going to take some serious introspection to figure out how education ought to change in the modern economic era, and no standardized test will spit out the answer to that.