When Big Data Is Bad Data: The press and standardized testing numbers, a cautionary tale
Disks of never-before-released data from the Department of Education landed with a befuddling thud in New York City’s newsrooms at the end of February. The swarm of spreadsheets had promised to provide a single ranking of 18,000 teachers (by name!) from zero to 99 based on students’ standardized test scores.
A bonanza for education reporters, right? Time to celebrate? Well, not exactly; not for me, anyway.
My intrepid journalism students wondered why I didn’t seem to share their enthusiasm for the data. Wasn’t I the same teacher who became semi-deranged when they turned in stories without any quantitative evidence? Think of the stories to be done, the fun graphics to design.
Here were not only reams of data, but hot data—from the center of a national controversy over how teachers should be evaluated. Adding to the buildup, the reports had been locked away for more than a year while a city judge refereed a high-octane legal fracas between the teachers union and the city over whether to release them. Nearly a dozen news organizations had become either witting or unwitting pawns in this dispute when they filed Freedom of Information requests for the data’s release.
“Isn’t it our job to bring information into the light, and let the public judge for themselves?” one student asked me. She had learned her lessons well.