Why poor schools can’t win at standardized testing

Thursday, July 17, 2014

You hear a lot nowadays about the magic of big data. Getting hold of the right numbers can increase revenue, improve decision-making, or help you find a mate—or so the thinking goes. In 2009, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a crowd of education researchers: “I am a deep believer in the power of data to drive our decisions. Data gives us the roadmap to reform. It tells us where we are, where we need to go, and who is most at risk.”

This is a story about what happened when I tried to use big data to help repair my local public schools. I failed. And the reasons why I failed have everything to do with why the American system of standardized testing will never succeed.

A few years ago, I started having trouble helping my son with his first-grade homework. I’m a data-journalism professor at Temple University, and when my son asked me for help on a worksheet one day, I ran into an epistemological dilemma. My own general knowledge (and the Internet) told me there were many possible “correct” answers. However, only one of these answers would get him full credit on the assignment.

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