I’m not a fan of the heavy emphasis upon standardized tests and I’m increasingly skeptical about our rapid move toward the quantification of learners, but I am almost certainly on the losing side of that debate. Learning analytics will be ubiquitous in schools of the future. Big data will transform how many think about education. It will bring about affordances, but it will also bring about plenty of limitations. Even though big data is the future, I’m not going silent on this issue, because there is too much at stake…even the minds of a generation. I’ve written about this a in different ways over the past few years, but I’m compelled to add one more article to the conversation.
I was reminded of this when reading Noam Chomsky’s article about the dangers of standardized testing. While I don’t always agree with Chomsky’s interpretations and evaluations, I appreciate that he gets the issue with standardized tests. It isn’t just about what is on the tests, it is about the whole idea of making school centered upon measuring and quantifying students. It is that these tests and measurements start to take over our thinking, and they begin to take over the mindset and focus of the person being tested and evaluated. It drives us into a mindset of quantification. We value that which is easier to measure and begin to dismiss that which is not.
Candidly, I’ve experienced this countless times in K-12 and higher education contexts. When schools started to make the move toward becoming more data-driven, I urged them to start by clarifying their core goals, beliefs, and values; and to hold on to those even when they struggle to find easy and accessible ways to measure how they are they are doing with regard to those goals, beliefs, and values. If they give in, even if just for the short-term, this the data with take over. It becomes a data-driven and not a mission-driven organization, even though well-meaning leaders will insist that this is not the case. Hard to measure and less concrete goals get set aside and other goals get put in place that are more easily quantifiable or that align with the data that is readily available. Before long, our focus is on how to raise the numbers of whatever measure. Those rich conversations about beliefs and values fade away as relics of the past. Those who speak up about the change are labeled as Luddites, anti-progress, or unrealistic romantics. Even more common, they are just ignored as the data-ocracy bulldozers its way through the organization, bypassing existing governance and organizational structures, even demanding submission from the the leaders of the organization over time. They even do it under the guise of mission.
From the sound of that last paragraph, you might think that I am not a supporter of standardized tests, big data, or learning analytics; but you would be wrong. I see promise and value. I also see caution. I believe in mission-driven organizations that are informed by data that best supports the mission, vision, values, and goals; and that is not what I was referring to in the last paragraph. Data in the form of standardized tests can be useful and offer valuable insights, but my concern in when we let these data points take over, and they do it quite often.
In higher education, consider how narrow our policy conversations become when we try to reduce the mission, vision, values, and goals of higher education institutions to graduation rate, retention rate, post-graduation employment rate, and loan default rates. These are valuable data points, but if they are the top priorities in higher education, then we are better off shutting down all Universities. That is not worth the time, energy, and investment (of many and lives).
What is education really about? I sure haven’t devoted my adult life to supporting an education ecosystem that is about achieving increasingly higher test scores in math, science, or language arts. My daily thoughts are not consumed with musings about education because I want to get high graduation rates for as many students as possible. Not that this is unimportant, but there are grander goals related to access, opportunity, learning, and equipping people for rich, full, meaningful, and impactful lives.
We must not let standardized tests drive the design of our learning organizations. Data must not dethrone mission, vision, values, and the goals informed by those three. When we discuss and debate the efficacy of various policies and practices, we must resist reverting to comparisons of the options on the basis of numeric scores on tests only, or other easily understandable data points. We are far better off taking the time to collectively decide upon a larger and broader set of data points, quantitative and qualitative. The statisticians and often the policymakers will want to drive us to that which is more systemically quantified and validated, and we must push back. Life and learning is about more than numbers and setting up the most valid and reliable measures and experiments.
As Chomsky notes, what is at risk is the mind of a generation. Our worship of numbers, quantification, and standardization produces a certain type of person, and I choose that word “produce” intentionally. There is a better way. There are, in fact, many better ways. I vote for one of them.