From standardized testing to depersonalized learning

As an organization fighting the overuse and misuse of high-stakes standardized testing, More Than A Score is pushing back against the plan for Chicago Public Schools to hand our children’s private data over to the Illinois Shared Learning Environment (ISLE), a statewide longitudinal database powered by Rupert Murdoch’s InBloom corporation.

We are concerned not just about the implications of the ISLE/InBloom technology for privacy rights (read more about those here), but also the implications for the very structure of our education system. The publicly stated purpose of ISLE is to allow teachers to personalize learning for their individual students. We think that, rather than personalizing learning through smaller class sizes, a method with stacks and stacks of social science research supporting it, ISLE will instead depersonalize the learning process by shifting from education via human contact to education mediated primarily via computer and tablet.  The reason this depersonalization is even possible is because our country’s education policies have redefined the purpose of education to be passing standardized tests.

When testing matters more than learning

For more than a decade, our public education system has emphasized the importance of standardized testing-based accountability above all other academic goals.  Students take standardized tests, and the results of the tests determine high-stakes consequences for students, teachers, administrators, and schools.  And so, the output of standardized testing, aka data, has assumed its own reified status in the educational process.  Data-driven instruction is now a mantra of an education reform movement that treats children as sources of assessment data and teachers as processors of assessment data.  The phrase data-driven instruction implies that teachers’ information about what their students know and don’t know will closely guide the trajectory of student-teacher interactions.

The reality of how assessment data drives instruction, however, is very different. In a education system where testing is the only evidence and goal of learning with official status, a teacher’s only purpose is to transfer knowledge and skills to a student. Assessing the student then generates the data that will be interpreted as a verdict on whether the transfer was successful.   If the verdict is that the transfer was unsuccessful, i.e “the student didn’t learn”, students may be held back, teachers may be fired, and schools may be closed to hold everyone “accountable.”  Standardized testing has become the only way to know whether a student is learning and to hold teachers and schools accountable for whether or not the student has learned.

This has had a suffocating effect on the quality of public education, particularly in large, urban districts that have been the primary guinea pigs for this education model. Ever more time is spent teaching to tests, and this has narrowed what students are expected to learn and how teachers try to teach them.
Worksheets and online test prep applications have replaced free play in younger grades and project-based learning in upper ones.  Math and reading, and only math and reading, take up larger and larger amounts of the school day.  This has deprived students of the very components of an education that will make them curiouscreative, thoughtful, and resourceful citizens in a democratic society, ready for adult life in a unpredictable future.

Replacing teachers with computers

So, now we have an education system that values standardized test results above all else.  Combining this value with (1) advances in artificial intelligence, particularly statistical machine learning, and computer processing power and (2) an information technology industry ever on the lookout for new markets has resulted in a very logical next step: computers usurping the role of teachers.  The idea is that the computer or tablet can now perform the transfer of knowledge and skills to students and then assess that transfer’s success.  And it can do this for a lower cost per child than a human teacher.  Labor is the largest portion of the costs of public education. Now education spending can be redirected from teachers’ paychecks to education technology corporations’ coffers.

Assessment via computers is, of course, already a reality in the Chicago Public Schools.  Millions of dollars are already spent on computerized assessments to be given to children as young as five and from their very first days at school, with predictably inhumane results.  Now, with the development of systems like ISLE, not only will the assessment step be computerized, but also the knowledge and skills transfer step.

The national standardization of curriculum through the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the majority of states makes implementing this transition to computer-mediated-education cheaper and easier. Supporters of CCSS claim that they are only a set of standards, not a curriculum.  But, the unification of the education industry into a single, national market of course and testing materials will quickly result in de facto national curricula down to the level of lesson plans, homework assignments, and, of course, tests. Systems like ISLE are being built to supply teachers with banks of online lessons and assessments, all tied to specific Common Core standards.


A flowchart from ISLE illustrating its paradigmatic learning process shows a teacher selecting a lesson for a student and then rating it, interacting only with the information on her dashboard about the student, and not directly with her student at all:teachingwithISLE

More recent screenshots from ISLE show how learning maps are composed of Common Core standards.  Each standard is associated with pre-existing course materials.calving6thgrader2 calving6thgrader3

One goal of an recent ISLE/InBloom pilot program in the Bloomington school district was to create a prototype of this system, describing the process behind the screenshot images above:

“Designing personalized learning on a per student basis is a very [sic] manual process. ISBE wishes to develop a base set of curriculum maps they can provide to districts as starting point and introduction into the SLC [ed. note: Shared Learning Collaborative now called InBloom] platform. For the pilot, ISBE educational leadership would be able to develop learning maps based on key concepts in IL content areas by subject area. These curriculum-level learning maps will help educators with recommended pathways through the Common Core and IL State Standards, including recommended learning resources for instruction or professional development.

Future enhancements may provide educators with access to learning maps that connect a student’s data with standards. ISBE may work with pilot district 87 (Bloomfield)[sic] to build a prototype recommendation engine that allows teachers to choose instructional strategies and resources for individual students based on integration student mastery data.”

InBloom’s own promotional materials push a similar vision: a teacher plucks out of the ether pre-existing yet perfectly appropriate “tools” for each of her students or circulates through a large class of students needing only to gaze at her own tablet to monitor their “learning”.

Teachers will no longer make use of their professional expertise and ingenuity to develop their own curricula and lessons. They will have little need for direct contact or knowledge of their students. Class size limits will be almost unnecessary. Teaching and learning will metamorphose from open-ended, creative endeavors to deterministic, computerized transactions.

Depersonalized classrooms of computerized learning and assessment are already in use throughout the country, from the scandal-ridden virtual charters of Pennsylvania and Ohio to Rocketship Education, a charter school chain based in California, which is rapidly colonizing the Midwest, including plans for one in Chicago.

Already here in Chicago, the Gates Foundation-funded Intrinsic Schools charter chain has opened one campus with four more planned.  The school intends to have a teacher-student ratio of 1:45, shocking even in a district where anything less than 36 children per classroom counts as “efficient”.  Students at Intrinsic will spend 50% of their time on “using digital content for literacy and math”, i.e. working alone on computers.

An alternative model of personalized education

More Than a Score believes that real teaching is not about a simple transfer of knowledge, and real learning cannot be verified by any artificial intelligence algorithms dreamed up Silicon Valley in the foreseeable future.  An opportunity for the education tech industry to thrive should not be confused with an opportunity for the next generation of human children to thrive.  In the world’s richest country, we do not need to reserve a real education and a human teacher for only some children, we can and should be providing this to every child.

Although a full description of what real high-quality, personalized education is outside the scope of this post, we urge parents and teachers to think about how they would define such an education themselves and how education experts have defined this prior to the era of where testing usurped learning.  In addition, it serves as an interesting comparison to look at the kind of education that the people pushing the model of public education described above are providing to their own children, e.g. Silicon Valley’s eliteBill GatesSandy Kress, lobbyist for Pearson; and Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel.


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