They're Going to be Stuffing Our Kids
Into Electronic Data Bases

Larry Kuehn

The teacher walks around the classroom observing and assessing students at work on the integrated thematic unit on horses. She carries in her hand a card with a list printed on it of the descriptors from the new primary program. Some 720 different descriptors are helping the teacher describe the child’s development. They are definitions of what the child should be performing in artistic, emotional, social, intellectual and physical development.

Stopping behind Jamie, a serious seven year old in this multi-level class of five to eight year old students, she sees him struggling with what looks like long division (there are 327 horses and 14 watering holes), but the descriptor notes a marked incapacity for assimilative precursors. She moves the light pen over the bar code next to those words, and defines Jamie’s learning descriptor. The pen’s light message reflects from a device on the ceiling to the humming computer across the room on the teacher’s desk. The information from the bar code is squirreled away into the database marked Jamie.

Is this a futuristic pipe dream, or a nightmare that is almost upon us? According to information provided in workshops at the Computer Using Educators Vancouver conference in early November, most of this scenario is already in place. It is the result of a “partnership” between a software manufacturer and a group of teachers financed by a grant from the government’s Year 2000 fund for assessment technology projects.
As most parents know, a new primary program is being used by hundreds of teachers around the province.(Ed: British Columbia) Extensive assessments through learner profiles and portfolios are an integral part of that program. Learner profiles are collections of information about how the individual student is performing on the descriptors. Portfolios are collections of the student’s work kept in a file for review by the teacher and parents.

Computer database software is supposed to be the answer to the massive record keeping demands (of assessing and reporting students’ progress.) These databases are essentially collections of electronic files that can be manipulated on the computer, or communicated electronically to other computers.

(One software package demonstrated was) a Hypercard stack for a Macintosh computer, programmed to hold a class list and a database of information on each individual student. It also had programmed into it the list of descriptors from the new primary program, so to say a student has accomplished numerical pattern recognition, the teacher need only move the computer’s “mouse” to the descriptor, “click” on the mouse, and the comment would be entered in the data file on the child. Six other software development projects have been funded to create similar data programs , including at least one that is “networked”.

The descriptors are in place, and the databases are nearly ready for teacher use. Some districts have already bought enough computers for each teacher.

What about the bar code entry of the data? Bar codes are the lines one sees on packages bought at the grocery store. They allow the checkout counter scanner to identify the item, enter the price, and alter the store’s electronic inventory. In the classroom application,, the bar codes would provide the computer with information about the child’s accomplishments as defined in the pre-determined descriptors.

The only possible way teachers could maintain the information being called for in the Year 2000 assessment program is to have a computer on every teacher’s desk, and a database on every student.

The workshop was ... challenged by a question about whether this whole approach to student assessment is legitimate. The conference keynote speaker, Neil Postman, had said only minutes before that every technology has a hidden philosophy, and we should try to understand what it is.

Postman said that the philosophy behind the standardized tests was that human experience could be reduced to a single mathematical number.

When it comes to communicating with parents, databases of information on one’s child will be even more intimidating and alienating than our current system. Teacher judgement ... lends itself to dialogue, empathy and understanding with parents. Teacher judgement can be backed up by stories and accounts of the activities of whole human beings rather than segmented pieces of information.

Are the advocates of assessment technology up to facing a challenge from human judgement? At the conference, the database demonstration included former education minister Tony Brummet on its sample class list. When the presenter wanted to show how the data file could be used to compile aggregate information to report to parents, she clicked her mouse on the Brummet file.

She then opted to show the crowd the comments under the "intellectual development" category. There on the screen for all to see was an empty file!

The teacher laughed nervously.

Excerpted from New Directions, April/91, Vol. 6, No. 2



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