But Is It an Ed-Tech Story? A Few Thoughts on Atlanta Public Schools, Testing, and Tech

Each week, I write a news round-up of the major education technology stories. I post one version on MindShift on Fridays and then on Saturday morning run an expanded version here (often with more colorful, snarky commentary -- because that's how I roll).

This week there were the usual sorts of stories: new startups launched, new features released, and so on.

Undoubtedly the biggest educational story of the week was the massive cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools. But was it a technology story?

I try to steer clear of news and analysis here that isn't tech-related. I'm not a policy wonk. and I'm no longer an educator. I have plenty of opinions, don't get me wrong, but non-technology stories always feel a bit outside the mandate I've given myself here at Hack Education.

I think about the question "What constitutes a technology story" a lot as a technology journalist. I confess: I always bristle at covering Groupon, for example, because -- other than the fact they have a website and send email -- I'm not clear what the technology is behind the company. Groupon's business requires thousands of salespeople, for example, not lines of code.

So back to the Atlanta Public Schools: ed-tech story -- yes or no?

On one hand, it appears as though much of the cheating involved erasures of wrong answers, copying of test booklets, and distribution of exams so that lower-performing students would get easier versions of tests. Erasers, photocopiers, and seating charts -- hardly high-tech stuff.

And so perhaps it's an ed-tech story in so far as the cheating scandal may fuel states (or Atlanta at least) to adopt more computerized testing. This way tests can be administered and scores can be transmitted to a centralized testing location before school employees have a chance to manipulate students' scores.

On the other hand, it feels like it has to be more than a case of "here's an area that begs for a technology solution" for me to say that the cheating scandal is an ed-tech story. I'm not sure that low-tech cheating and test-administration becomes (high-)tech/ed-tech news just with the promise of a computerized "fix."

Nonetheless, the question of standardized test-taking does seem deeply implicated in technology. How much of the pressures around testing come from the push for "data-driven education"? How much of that is a response to technology (better number-crunching capabilities, and all that)?

And how much of the direction that testing itself (and now, of course sadly, instruction) has taken has been shaped by the multiple choice test, optical mark recognition, and the IBM Test Scoring Machine (first introduced in 1937). How do the limitations of technology that is almost a hundred years old still dictate the way in which we test students' knowledge -- in other words, those early IBM machines could only handle the 4 question -- A, B, C, or D -- format.

I'm pretty convinced then that the testing scandal is an ed-tech story, then, but not perhaps in a clearcut sort of way. It isn't just the failure of schools and systems now (it isn't simply a cultural failure either), but rather part of a longer history of education technology development, one that promises standardization and efficiency and control -- perhaps even part of a longer history of failed ed-tech.

Photo credits: Flickr user Alberto G.


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