Embedded Assessments: An End Around Parental Opt-Outs

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

Over the last several years, a major point of contention between parents and the education establishment (both federal and state) has been the issue of testing. Especially as states have responded to federal mandates by administering unvalidated assessments aligned to the Common Core national standards, parents across the country have begun, with varying degrees of success, to opt their children out of those assessments. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) perpetuates the federal testing mandates, so the opt-out movement will continue.

But the education establishment is now colluding with Big Data to obliterate opting out. How? By promoting “embedded assessment” within the digital-learning platforms that are gradually replacing teacher-led instruction. As students interact with these sophisticated platforms, the software collects millions of data points on each child and can assess exactly what “skills” he has mastered and where he needs further training. (Modern progressive education is about skills rather than knowledge, and training rather than education.) Embedded assessment means each student’s performance will be assessed every moment, in real time, through analysis of keystrokes and perhaps even physiological reactions. Because ultimately the periodic “summative assessment” – the end-of-course or end-of-year test — will disappear, so will parents’ ability to protect their children from the testing.

The concept of embedded assessment has a certain appeal. If students are being assessed continually, the argument goes, the adaptive software can adjust to feed them whatever they need to address any problems they’re experiencing. Moreover, less class time will be wasted in preparing for and administering the summative assessment. But even some players in this new world of Big Data are acknowledging serious concerns with the concept – and parents and policymakers must understand what embedded assessment really means for children and their futures.

In a recent presentation at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy, Yale University researcher and legal scholar Elana Zeide discussed the troubling implications of, as she put it, “moving from human decision-making to machine decision-making” in education. The potential problems involve threats to both student privacy and individual freedom and autonomy.

Zeide explained that adopting “personalized learning” through technology will enable creation of student portfolios at a granular level. For example, the software will record not only whether the student can calculate the correct answer on an algebra problem, but exactly how his brain is working on each step of that problem. As he progresses through school, platforms such as the creepy, mind-mapping Knewton will create “knowledge maps” to show precisely what the student knows and can do, based on every keystroke he executes and (with some programs) even on his heart rate and facial countenance as he does so. Zeide predicts those knowledge maps will eventually replace degrees and diplomas as credentials to open doors to higher education and employment.

The existence of such portfolios raises major concerns about student privacy. For one thing, as Zeide pointed out, this data generally isn’t covered by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). And Zeide acknowledged that all this “portable, interoperable, instantly transferable, and durable” data constitutes an enormous temptation for companies and researchers – “you can repurpose it for all sorts of cool aggregation and mining . . . and you can discover things you never knew were there!” Do parents want corporations and others sifting through their children’s most intimate data to discover things that should remain private?

But Zeide focused especially on the algorithms that the software will create using these millions of data points on each student – algorithms that will predict a student’s future behavior and performance. She explained that with digital training, all steps in the traditional educational process – observation, formative assessment (“quizzes” that measure how well the student is learning), summative assessment, and credentialing (awarding of diplomas or certificates) – are collapsed into one moment. And every keystroke, every action, no matter how tiny, will be memorialized in this algorithm, forever.

Under such a system, Zeide said, every student will be subject to constant monitoring and will earn an “algorithmic credential” based on literally every interaction he has ever had with the educational software. That credential could dictate what kind of higher education he qualifies for and what kind of job he gets.

The likely ramifications of this are sobering. What will be the psychological effect when a child knows he can’t erase anything – that everything he does, every mistake he makes, will be fed into his algorithm? And because all data is, as Zeide said, “decontextualized,” the computer won’t make adjustments for days when the child is sick or struggling for some other reason (things a teacher would know and take into account).

And consider the intimidating effect of this permanent portfolio that every student will now have. Will the student feel pressured to conform to the consensus of opinion on a particular topic, knowing that any dissension may come back to haunt him? Or what happens if the algorithm gets it wrong? If the algorithm mislabels him in some way? Will there be an appeal process? Appeal to whom? The erroneous or misleading data is already fixed and recorded. Is human agency therefore to be eliminated?

And what if the algorithmic data was neither wrong nor misleading at the time it was collected and analyzed, but the individual experienced a fundamental conversion from, say, unengaged slacker to motivated go-getter? Will automated systems immediately discard his application or resume on the basis of the now-outdated algorithm?

The problems of “predictive analytics” (decision-making based on algorithms) are being explored in many contexts – credit ratings, employment decisions, law-enforcement issues. Individuals who find themselves disadvantaged by an algorithm because of mistaken or misleading information can spend years – or forever – trying to escape the hall of mirrors they were thrust into. And when education is increasingly concerned with “equity,” the possibility that individuals will be labeled based on stereotypes is too real to ignore. Indeed, a stereotype perpetuated by a supposedly unbiased algorithm rather than a human being is even more difficult to overcome.

How do we prevent these problems with education algorithms? Zeide acknowledged that she has more questions than answers.

Perhaps the law could impose consent requirements – no collection or use of such data without parental consent. Zeide considers this idealistic, since it’s unlikely parents will fully understand the nature of the problem or what they’re really consenting to. Or the law could confine use of the data to “educational purposes.” But of course, that phrase can be expanded to allow almost anything. Or could the law ban collecting biometric data? Zeide expressed concern that this would interfere with services for special-needs students (although the law could be drafted to allow narrowly tailored uses for such students). But even then, the intrusive data that would be included in the contemplated algorithms goes well beyond purely biometric data. Drafting an effective law is possible, but difficult in light of opposition from the powerful educational-technology companies.

Zeide also discussed the frequently recommended possibility of giving each student control over his own portfolio, allowing him to remove it from the “silo” and converting it into a “data backpack” that he can use for his own goals. But as Zeide pointed out, that solution creates its own problems. Would universities or potential employers demand to see the portfolio? Even if the law prohibited them from asking, would the individual’s decision not to offer it voluntarily suggest to them that he’s hiding something?

Finally, Zeide raised the issue of algorithms’ effect on the nature and definition of education itself. The Big Data mindset may suggest that only what can be measured and recorded is worth knowing. If a student’s grasp of the messages of Macbeth can’t be recorded as a “skill” that should be included in the portfolio, does that mean this understanding is less important to his education? Indeed, progressive education schemes such as Common Core already minimize intangible understanding in favor of concrete skills that can be measured. Zeide pointed out that in Big Data World, questions such as this would be worked out invisibly, without input from parents or teachers.

Zeide wandered into territory that borders on the heretical for data mavens. She raised the question whether, perhaps, “less is more” – whether we should limit use of these digital tools, or preserve the “silos” so that not all data on a student is linked and easily accessible. Or (gulp) maybe we want to eliminate the digital tools altogether.

This conclusion would be anathema to foundations such as Jeb Bush’s ExcelinEd (on whose board Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos served) and tech-industry-funded groups such as the Data Quality Campaign. These groups trumpet the supposed benefits of digital training and claim it can transform education (have we not learned to look askance at promised “transformations” of anything?). And for now, their argument is winning.

Encouraged and incentivized by the federal government, and overrun by education-technology snake-oil salesmen, er, lobbyists, public schools are adopting digital training at a breakneck pace. Most decision-makers for those schools have probably never considered the serious implications of this transformation. Nor have the implications been explained to parents, who rather are assured only that digital training will create unparalleled personalized learning opportunities for their children.

But it is critical that as a society we take a hard look at what the Big Data revolution means for the children in our schools – for their privacy, and their very humanity. As Big Data advances in education, parents will discover that opting out of a test isn’t enough. To protect their children, they may have to opt out of an entire system.

9 thoughts on “Embedded Assessments: An End Around Parental Opt-Outs

  1. Jane,
    I am so glad you did this article. I have been on this trail for quite some time trying to put together a picture that is clear and understandable. Our legislative education committee members must begin too see where this education reform is ultimately heading and understand how it may harm children. SEL, advanced technology, and brain mapping are the ultimate weapons for engineering a new society.

    Thanks, Dave

  2. Jane is magnificent at taking a complex and complicated concept or program and breaking it into incremental pieces for a whole-picture understanding. This is truly the world of science fiction coming to life in the world of education.

    As a teacher and administrator, I find this whole picture extremely frightening. We already see the results of disengaged young people because of an allegiance to their technical tools. They just don’t see their effect on others because their world is with their electronic “machines.” Hence, we now must focus on “social and emotional learning” to teach them a re-engagement within society.

    In our worldly advancement, we tend to create unintended consequences which are often costly to members of our society. That seems to happening here within education, as so clearly explained by Jane in this article. Who has the power and knowledge to manage (steer) this rolling snowball? I don’t believe the public, in general, will understand the consequences of this expensive and power-building movement among big-gun players. That means they won’t rise up against it until it’s too solidified in the education system. Is this a foregone conclusion of the future for our children’s education experience?

  3. This is a fine and important piece. I would say that the progressive educators i know oppose this process and Vommmon Core, they out the human relationship between people – student’s and teachers – at the center of learning. But ‘progressive’ us another word with different meanings to different people, has always had a technocratic and a humanistic meanings that have little in commom.

  4. Wow! And I thought I feared for our children before I read this informative article. I was also guilty of letting Common Core standards slip in. I got a bunch of emails inviting me to coffee with our district superintendent who would explain what was coming. I paid no attention to them, thinking it was just “new math” or something similar and did not attend those “coffees”, probably just as they wanted. After all, it was presented as a fait accompli anyway. I have watched my 9 year old struggle with the CC math standards even more than she did before they were implemented. I have also attempted to educate myself on these standards and what they mean for her future. She has refused every test since the district started issuing them, with the support of most of her teachers, and will continue to do so, but how do I fight these embedded assessments? I also read an article about how they want to start monitoring stress and heart rates, etc. as mentioned in this article, in PE and if you don’t attain and maintain a certain heart rate during class, you fail. I was astonished at this invasion of privacy and mentioned it to my 2 older children who laughed and said they had worn monitors at certain times during PE since middle school. I was never notified that they were doing this nor did I give permission. The lady who commented above my reply about the social disconnect kids today already have because of electronic devices is absolutely spot on! look at the incident that just happened with the abuse a disabled 18 year old man suffered that was streaming on Facebook live. Those people had no human empathy because social media defines their lives. I do feel social media has its uses, but further disconnect from human teachers in childhood leads us to a very scary place.

  5. This is all part of Competency Based Education and Assessment (OBE) as stated in ESSA. Anyone that has read ESSA has been trying to sound the alarm that the high stakes testing OPT OUT was parents falling into the very trap they set for us. This way parents will think the won but instead it is THEM that won because testing all day, everyday with no teacher in the classroom is what they have wanted all along. And with the expanding cost (by design) of education you will start to see all kinds of fancy ways to educate kids anywhere, anytime. It is not good folks. Parents will have no way of knowing what thier kids are learning or better yet what they are not learning. This is how personalized education with change the values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of our children one child at a time.

  6. I shudder to think of what is next. Robots? Don’t laugh. Robots don’t get pregnant, they don’t eat or drink, they don’t use up resources, they don’t pollute the air and on and on. There are enough sickos in this world to start thinking one day that robots are a better alternative to humans.

  7. “… this destroying reform will have razed an American institution to a mound of rubble. And in its place … will stand drive-thru learning centers offering kiosk-educations from a B. F. Skinner touch-screen that will supply the finger-pointer with all they need to succeed in a life of rich monotony.”

    That wasn’t some long-ago, Nostradamus-like prediction. And those aren’t smokey words that need severe parsing. It’s rather straight-forward stuff … from only four months back. And every day it becomes more true … and more obvious to anyone who’s actually tuned into the frequency of change in this reform.

    Fighting today’s battles with yesterday’s tactics is a feel-good waste of time.

    History is full of one-hit wonders … on the scene one day, gone the next. Feasting off a single success … again and again and again … will turn one fat and flabby and slow … and predictable.

    That’s us.

    That’s what this opt-out resistance has become … a once consequential opposition now stuck in some glory-day repetition that feels good, but invokes no fear, brings no real concessions … and does very little to stop those hell-bent on frankensteining the lives of our children.

    We. Are. Being. Played.

    Played by a dishonest narrative of success. Played by stale leadership unwilling to update their tactics. And plagued … perhaps … by egos now deemed more important than the cause itself.

    This is not meant to be an unkind statement. But this isn’t the moment for graceful language. Not when classrooms are morphing into digital dungeons, interpersonal relationships are being replaced with tablet liaisons, and testing is becoming the end-all-be-all of education.

    We are losing. Badly.

    And we’re pissing away our very best moment to make some national thunder.

    A new administration is soon to be installed, but too many would rather play political Parcheesi than capture their attention and bid them to respond to our demands.

    No one has to like them, but we’d all better acknowledge their power. That’s the reality. Swallow it.

    We should appeal to them rather than bitching about election results and imagining diabolical bullshit. No one is out to destroy this nation. That’s immature prattle. And if that’s your focus, what the hell are you doing here? In this resistance? Because this new leadership is a resisting force itself. Don’t you get it?

    This should be our moment of opportunity … not a showcase for whiney self-flagellation over an election that’s over and done. It is what it is. Deal with it.

    Opting out is nostalgia. This is now. And it seems that too many are dithering away time and energy because their politics have been bruised and their ideologies disfavored.

    Tough. You’re not the ones suffering. The kids are. Get over it.

    We should be opting-out of opting-out.

    That’s right. And we should be making the most of this very moment … stating our case as succinctly and passionately as possible. And drawing unavoidable attention to this resistance.

    To do that … we should empty the schools. And make some emphatic thunder.

    I know, I know, I know. In a flash there will be dozens of justifications and pretexts and excuses why we should never … not ever! … do such a thing.

    Those are uncourageous apologies for not having the balls to stand up for what’s right. Or to stand up for children.

    It’s lame stuff. Wimp stuff. This is hardball. The game is rough.

    “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” Remember that.

    It’s “carpe diem” time. Empty the schools.

    Go BIG or go home.

    Denis Ian

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