Datafication puts education at risk


May 10, 2022 Phil McRae, ATA Associate Co-ordinator, Research


In April 2022, the government of Alberta announced that, in response to the pandemic “learning loss,” school authorities across the province would be required to administer standardized literacy and numeracy tests to children in grades 1 to 3, starting in September 2022. Two days before proclaiming this edict, the government also launched a two-hour standardized digital test for 15 year olds in mathematics, science and reading, along with an additional financial literacy assessment on behalf of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Given the UCP education platform, the Alberta Teachers’ Association anticipated this move and in early 2022 launched a research project (led by Dr. Richelle Marynowski of the University of Lethbridge) to gauge the Alberta landscape of standardized (and digital) diagnostic assessment products being used across school authorities.

This research project will articulate what instruments are primarily being used in classrooms, and how teachers and school leaders perceive their actual value and impact on diagnosing student learning challenges and/or enhancing instruction. This research will also gauge the extent to which these tests add to existing work intensification and bureaucratic burdens for Alberta’s teaching profession.

The dramatic increase in standardized testing across Alberta is part of a very strategic march toward a narrowing of K–6 curriculum to privilege the math and reading domains. It is also part of the establishment of a new digital testing infrastructure that can generate more standardized student learning data for those farthest away from our classrooms and schools.

This overreliance on standardized digital testing, and the narrowing of learning outcomes to curricular domains that can be easily measured (math and reading), has been shown globally to be both regressive to preparing young people for a world of complex change, and corrosive to student engagement.

By emphasizing a narrow range of measurable aspects of education, these standardized tests and diagnostic assessments take attention away from the less measurable (or immeasurable) educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development, thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be about for Albertans.

The concern for Alberta

The narrowing (or reductionist approach) should be of particular concern in Alberta, with a new K–6 curriculum on the horizon, and where we need to reintroduce a focus on wellness and well-being in our schools following the global pandemic.

Alberta’s education minister has stated that “assessing students in their early years provides essential information… to government about student learning issues, gaps and needs so students who may be at risk get the help they need.” The reality, however, is that teachers and school leaders already know which students are at risk in their schools. They know in the first few hours and days with their students. What our professionals are facing is moral distress because they do not have the appropriate resources and supports to meet their students’ needs.

As a profession, we should be aware that the notion of “learning loss” will be used in pandemic recovery as rationale for increasing standardized testing. It will also be used as a bludgeon to signal a lack of trust in the professionalism of teachers. The UCP’s education platform (prepandemic 2019) states an intention to ramp up digital standardized testing for all children, at each and every grade level, as the means to hold “schools and teachers more accountable for student performance.”

Accountability, or the ability to count, has become the driving philosophy, versus an emphasis on responsibility, whereby schools and teachers have the ability to respond with appropriate resources and supports necessary for their students and school community. We need more responsibility to support our students and school communities versus narrow ideas of accountability and performativity through datafication.

The datafication of learning

As shared on the Association’s website, “data-fication” is an accelerating technological trend that is turning many aspects of our lives into computerized data and transforming organizations into data-driven enterprises by converting this information into new forms of value. Social media, for example, datafies our friendships to market products and services to us and surveillance services to agencies, which in turn changes our behaviour.

Datafication narrows teachers’ professional autonomy to ensure the creation of “good data” for the government of Alberta based on these testing regimes. However, children and teachers in Alberta are not merely data. Data are abstract elements and, indeed,  far too often become politicized (e.g., learning loss, Fraser Institute school rankings).

We should draw on the professional wisdom of the late Joe Bower of Red Deer, who in 2015 stated in response to the growing datafication of learning: “Want to collect data on how children are learning? Know them. Watch them. Listen to them. Talk with them. Sit with them. Be with them.” ❚


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