Big Data & Education Collide: Standardized Testing and Child Self Esteem

(Disclaimer…this is a rant) Big data in education…what a mighty subject to attempt to cover. There's no denying that big data is touching every industry, and of course education is a field teeming with profitable opportunities. The formation of the future generation is not a responsibility that any country takes lightly, and so many companies (especially those in big data) are realizing the potential to improve and perfect the learning process through analytics and trend spotting in order to optimize students' education. 

It would really take all day to weigh the merits and flaws of the big data - education collision which is why I will discuss in specifics one relevant issue: standardized testing.

In the United States, the entire national school system uses standardized testing to measure the performance of students individually and in comparison to one another, rank teacher performance, and rank schools (which then affects their funding). What not many people know is that standardized testing is also used on a trial/error experimental basis to measure the effectiveness of curriculums, teaching methods, and textbooks.

These usages may seem innocent at worst, yet there still exist purveying issues behind big data application, particularly when relating to a subject as provoking and controversial as children's education.

There are many issues with this that span from privacy to the unfairness of funding allocation to the fact that teachers and administrators are given financial incentives for having higher-scoring students. Yes, those are all massive problems but today I'm not going to talk about any of that. Rather, I'm going to address the elephant in the room which is that...

The testing is being used to prove something it doesn't measure. A standardized test may be effected at 10 different schools in 10 different cities. The school who performs the best is viewed as the "best" school with the most effective teachers and the best curriculum. It's assumed that the teachers and the lessons are better at this school.

Equally, 5 teachers could teach the same lesson. Whichever classroom scores the highest is thought to have the best teacher.

5 different lessons could be taught. The highest scoring classroom is thought to have the best lesson for learning the concept.

So what is the problem with all of these assumptions? The problem is that a standardized test is black and white. When it's used to measure varying performances and pick out best practices, it's assumed that all variables have been held constant and that only ONE variable is changed (ex: teachers thought to be best at one school because they have consistently higher test scores). In reality, there are many factors that influence a child's score on a test that span beyond the simple effectiveness of the teacher or lesson or textbook or how intelligent the child is.

There exists a very well-known theory called Maslov's hierarchy of needs. Basically it says that all human needs can be visualized in a pyramid shape, where the most basic needs are on the bottom rung, and only once the basic needs have been filled can a person move up to the higher rung of needs.


This theory can also be roughly applied to children. If self-actualization (the top rung) can be defined more in terms of a child's fulfillment of their own potential and effective learning, then that means that all of the needs on the lower rungs of the pyramid must be fulfilled in order for them to achieve their academic potential. There can be many reasons why a child or a group of children (in an entire school) are blocked from the lower rungs of the pyramid. They could live in a low-income or at-risk neighborhood and the problem could lie with their parents or their home life. Or the school environment itself could be harmful - there may be a problem with bullying (safety) or with students feeling a sense that they don't belong. These factors can't and aren't factored into the results of a standardized test…which makes a standardized test inaccurately representative of what it's meant to measure.

I really believe that this hierarchy of needs theory plays a huge role in influencing how effectively children learn. Low self esteem in particular is a major issue that is actually propagated by standardized testing. Basically, a child's self esteem is influenced by how their parents see them, how their school sees them, and how they see themselves. If at a young age a child receives low test scores, they know that they're performing lower than "average" compared to their peers and their parents are aware of it as well. At first their parents will think that the child is having a "hard time" but if this issue persists, they will inevitably come to the realization that their child has academic difficulties indicative of lower intelligence or just a lack of "book smarts." The child will consider him/herself as less intelligent or worse in school, and this will affect their identity and self esteem and perpetuate the cycle of low performance.

Now, the problem with this is twofold. These test scores damage a child's self esteem because they and their parents are made aware of these test scores. Now, it's not realistic to think that there's a way to administer these tests yet keep the scores from the parents (the argument would be that they have "a right to know"), so how would the education system go about minimizing the impact that these scores have on the child's perception of him or herself? The answer to that would be that the school shouldn't put such a heavy weight on these test scores. Subjective measures of performance should be highlighted just as much as standardized, objective measures. These measures could be essays, creativity, the child's personal qualities (a good leader, etc). It would certainly be an idea worth considering to require (on a national level) that teachers pay attention to students' personal qualities and report those back to students and their parents during parent-teacher conferences. Schools with more funding (typically in high-income areas) usually do take this approach to student development, but it would be interesting if national policies reflected a shift in attempting to improve children's self esteem.

The OTHER problem that hinders children's self esteem is the fact that they really only have one job…to be a student. They aren't old enough to have a job or have discovered and nurtured natural talents yet. So if a student is not successful at the one thing they do all day (go to school) then their sense of identity and self esteem will be damaged.

Now, most schools require that students participate in athletics, but what often occurs is that children who are younger than the rest or less physically developed tend to be overshadowed by their older, stronger classmates in sports and in the classroom. So what is an alternative method to help a student build a sense of identity independent of their "book smarts" that can't be damaged by test scores? Creative pursuits of course! Many schools who lack funding have cut creative and art programs in favor of allocating their funding toward more "practical" subjects that they feel will have a more direct effect on student's academic performance. However, what they don't realize is that a student's self esteem is essential in their ability to learn and the quality of their academic performance, and that sense of self worth can in turn be nurtured by creativity.

Earlier I also touched on the fact that schools (particularly in at-risk areas) may have a bullying problem or the students feel like they don't belong. On a national level, policies require that bullying be met with strict discipline and that resources like school counseling must be available to students who are dealing with social problems. Sounds like a good idea, but when you were 6-14 years old did you ever think to seek out help from a school counselor? Realistically, children aren't going to look for help from an adult if they're having difficulty…in fact, a student might not even realize that there's a problem in the first place. The solution to this is a focus on workshops, seminars, and possibly even required subjects that emphasize empathy and teach students the tools to set personal boundaries, deal with social issues, and strive for social harmony.

I apologize for the long rant, but I really feel like it's time to highlight the issue of big data not from a frenetic parent's perspective ("My child is not a data point!") or the administration's perspective ("Big data helps leverage and standardize the national schooling system") or from the perspective of a big data education company looking to make a profit. Students are the purpose of education, so we must try to gain a deeper and more holistic understanding of how children learn and how their environment affects them in order to figure out exactly how much value certain big data initiatives are actually adding.


Signing off for now,

The Captain