14 OCTOBER 2015

"Big Data" and International Rankings in Education

"Big Data" and International Rankings in Education

First we need to establish what is meant by “big data”. “Big data” and international education rankings are often talked about in the same breath but they are not in fact the same. An example of a “big” data set would be loyalty card information. Analysis of “big data” is enabled by increased computational capacity. In the education system, most data comes from one-off samples – it is not “big data”. “Big data” would imply having data on all students, continually updated, giving a detailed picture of their knowledge, understanding and skills.

We are not there yet but the hope is that one day the teacher in the classroom could have the potential to collect and access on-going performance data and continual feedback as to where the child is at, allowing individualised approaches and potentially bypassing testing altogether. Students too could get feedback on their performance. At the edges organisations could design tailored interventions. Big data would enable better understanding of an individual’s performance which could inform teaching practice and facilitate improvements in student performance.

This could be utopia – but equally dystopia if surveillance was involved. Who controls the data, analyses it and makes decisions based on it are important questions.

International rankings have a different purpose; they enable countries to look outwards. While performance within a nation may be going up in comparison to historical performance, it might be going down in comparison to other countries internationally. It is about temperature testing at a particular moment in time. “Big data” implies on-going collection of data which will be of use primarily to improve individual performance. One day international tests may be displaced by the availability of real-time data but for the moment they are what we have to work with. Therefore it is helpful to consider what lies behind them.

Literacy as Numbers is a co-edited collection of papers, examining the processes and impact of international assessments. It is edited by Mary Hamilton, Bryan Maddox and Camilla Addey.

The editors of the book co-direct the Laboratory of International Assessment Studies, an inter-disciplinary network and space that brings together academic researchers, testing agencies, policy makers and the end users of international educational assessment data. The Laboratory supports international debate on the potentials, practices and politics of international assessments. It is presently running an ESRC seminar series on ‘The Potentials, Politics and Practices of International Assessments’ – further information is available at http://international-assessments.org/esrc/