Have you ever seen a school data wall?

In a struggling Newark, N.J., public school, I’ve seen bulletin boards showing the test scores of each grade compared with state averages. And in one in affluent Silicon Valley, I’ve seen smartboards that track individual students’ math responses in real time.

These kinds of public displays send a message: This school cares about student performance by the numbers.

You’ve probably heard about the positive side of all that data gathering and sharing. Like this story we ran just last week about a district that used data as the catalyst to conquer chronic absences.

But as “data-driven” education becomes more popular, critics are also raising a range of concerns.

The U.S. Department of Education has increasingly encouraged and funded states to collect and analyze information about students: grades, state test scores, attendance, behavior, lateness, graduation rates and school climate measures like surveys of student engagement.

In its recent announcement of new regulations, the department emphasizes “ensuring the use of multiple measures of school success based on academic outcomes, student progress, and school quality.”

The education technology industry, meanwhile, keeps making it easier for teachers to record and share information on students. Check out the “dashboards” inside programs like Google Apps for Education, or freestanding gradebook apps like JumpRope, or ClassDojo, focused on behavior.

Software also collects information on students all by itself. Jose Ferreira, CEO of Knewton, said in a 2012 speech that his “adaptive learning” platform, used by 10 million students globally, collects 5 to 10 million data points per student per day — down to how many seconds it takes you to answer that algebra problem.

“We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything,” Ferreira said. “And it’s not even close.”

The argument in favor of all this is that the more we know about how students are doing, the better we can target instruction and other interventions. And sharing that information with parents and the community at large is crucial. It can motivate big changes. It’s to serve equity and uphold civil rights, say the latest Ed Department regulations, that states must “provide clear and transparent information on critical measures of school quality and equity to parents and community members.”

But we’re also starting to hear more about what might be lost when schools focus too much on data. Here are five arguments against the excesses of data-driven instruction.

1) Motivation

A body of psychology research shows that merely being reminded of one’s group identity, or that a certain test has shown differences in performance between, say, women and men, can be enough to depress outcomes on that test for the affected group. This is known as stereotype threat.

In a highly data-driven classroom, students who struggle may be made acutely aware, to the percentile, of how far behind the average they are. This could be enough to trigger stereotype threat, depressing performance still more. Or, it could create negative feelings about school, threatening students’ sense of belonging, which is key to academic motivation.

And what about the students who are leading the dashboard, collecting badges, prizes or virtual stickers? These kinds of extrinsic rewards could depress their interest in an activity for its own sake, researchers have found.

2) Helicoptering

In the ’80s, my parents dropped me off at school and hoped for the best. They may have gotten a call from the teacher if something was wrong; otherwise, no news was good news until the first report card.

Today, parents increasingly are receiving daily text messages with photos and videos from the classroom. And some software systems let them log on and see exactly how Jasper or Alaia are performing, assignment by assignment, even down to the number of minutes spent reading or practicing Spanish.

All this info could be a great way for parents to partner in their kids’ education. It could also enable or even encourage a new level of educational helicopter parenting.

A style of overly involved “intrusive parenting” has been associated in studies with increased levels of anxiety and depression when students reach college. “Parent portals as utilized in K-12 education are doing significant harm to student development,” argues college instructor John Warner in a recent piece for Inside Higher Ed.

3) Commercial Monitoring and Marketing

Have you ever been served an ad in the middle of your English homework? The National Education Policy Center releases annual reports on commercialization and marketing in public schools. In its most recent report in May, researchers there raised concerns about targeted marketing to students using computers for schoolwork and homework.

Companies like Google pledge not to track the content of schoolwork for the purposes of advertising. But in reality these boundaries can be a lot more porous. For example, a high school student profiled in the NEPC report often consulted commercial programs like dictionary.com and Sparknotes: “Once when she had been looking at shoes, she mentioned, an ad for shoes appeared in the middle of a Sparknotes chapter summary.”

The authors of the NEPC report observed:

“Schools have proven to be a soft target for data gathering and marketing. Not only are they eager to adopt technology that promises better learning, but their lack of resources makes them susceptible to offers of free technology, free programs and activities, free educational materials, and help with fundraising.”

4) Missing What Data Can’t Capture

Computer systems are most comfortable recording and analyzing quantifiable, structured data. The number of absences in a semester, say; or a three-digit score on a multiple-choice test that can be graded by machine, where every question has just one right answer.

But what about a semester-long group project where one student overcame her natural tendency to procrastinate, excelled in the design and construction of Odysseus’s ship out of cardboard, but then plagiarized part of the explanatory text? What about a student who manages “only” 10 absences despite changing living situations three times during the semester? Can dashboards reflect these complexities?

5) Exposing Students’ “Permanent Records”

In the past few years several states have passed laws banning employers from looking at the credit reports of job applicants. Employers want people who are reliable and responsible. But privacy advocates argue that a past medical issue or even a bankruptcy shouldn’t unfairly dun a person who needs a fresh start.

Similarly, for young people who get in trouble with the law, there is a procedure for sealing juvenile records, because it’s understood that even grave mistakes shouldn’t haunt young people forever.

Educational transcripts, unlike credit reports or juvenile court records, are currently considered fair game for gatekeepers like colleges and employers. These records, though, are getting much more detailed.

Arguably, they more closely resemble credit reports, court records or even psychological dossiers.

ClassDojo, for example, reports on students’ “Perseverance,” “Teamwork,” “Leadership,” “Resourcefulness” and “Curiosity.” That kind of information in the past would come, if at all, from carefully curated recommendation letters.

It’s certainly imaginable that both colleges and employers will want to see this info now that it’s available in a broader, more accessible format. Should they have access to it? Only if it’s beneficial or if it’s damaging as well? Who decides?

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
What’s At Risk When Schools Focus Too Much on Student Data? 7 June,2016Anya Kamenetz

  • Marlene Vaught

    I’m glad to see the downsides of constant tracking being discussed. My 8-yr-old daughter is dyslexic. She is making excellent progress between special education and private dyslexia therapy, but understandably, she does read significantly below grade level. I was unpleasantly surprised to learn this last school year that her teacher was asking all the children to plot their own reading fluency weekly on a chart that had the target range clearly marked. The teacher’s aim was to show the kids how much they were accomplishing and try to encourage them to work even harder on their reading (as well as a way to sneak in graphing practice.) However, asking my daughter to keep participating in this exercise meant forcing her to confront just how far behind her peers she was every week.

    Dyslexia is caused by a damaged, or otherwise malfunctioning, language processing center in the brain. Repeated shaming by rubbing a child’s nose in his or her failure to achieve the same results as children without dyslexia or other learning disabilities is not going to repair the damage to the brain, but it can convince a child to stop working herself into the ground day in and day out to try to overcome these challenges. Faced with this constant slap in the face, many children will adopt the attitude, “Why try so hard if I’m still not good enough?” It is grossly unfair to expect a child with this type of learning disability to hit the same reading milestones at the same time as other non-challenged children, just as it would be unfair to tell a child who walks with crutches that she should be able to complete a mile run in the same amount of time as a healthy child. My daughter already knows she is dyslexic. She doesn’t need to be reminded and then asked to keep charting how inferior she is in this unfair measure; she needs encouragement and praise for the progress that all her effort produces.

    When I contacted her teacher, explained my concerns, and requested that she stop asking this of my daughter, she was very responsive. I don’t think she had ever considered that there could be harmful consequences to this. I’m sure that she is not the only well-meaning teacher to have failed to consider this aspect of data-driven education. It needs to be discussed so that solutions can be found that keep the benefits without creating the harmful consequences. In my daughter’s case, we arranged that she would get a different piece of graph paper with a different scale and the grade level targets removed.

  • Carlos Hernandez

    I believe that schools nowadays have shifted their main focuses from “wants and needs”. Our kid’s school is providing online resources to track their daily/assignment progress, but we did notice our kids “paper trail/homework” was inconsistent. What was worse, the kids where not submitting homework because they didn’t understand in order for them to turn in. I believe data will be helpful with forward progress but can be a burden when trying to identify current issues at hand.

  • Amy Gutowski

    We’re mandated to care more about data than the well-being of our students. Humanity is being lost in all of this. Joy is being sucked right out of our classrooms. The business model of education is destroying our schools. We’re drowning in junk data and losing sight of the kids right in front of us. It’s sad and disheartening and bad for our children.

  • Michael Pisani

    It’s all about the data.

    Budgets, teacher pay scales, test scores…

    More often than not, schools have become “holding pens” for people under the age of 19.

    “Education”? Very amusing.

  • We have fallen into the ‘too much of a good thing’ phase with data. No one can argue against student data – we need it. However, if we ONLY focus on student data, we aren’t doing ourselves as teachers or our students any favors. It’s a blessing and a burden that must be treated as one ingredient of an educational recipe, and not the main course in and of itself.

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