Is the Future Now for A.I.? the Feds' Reliance on Standardized Testing Excludes the Use of Artificial Intelligence, So School Districts Are Forging Ahead with the Technology to Power Their Own Formative Assessments

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IN THE STEVEN SPIELBERG MOVIE A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the hero, an android, wants to become human because he believes it is a better state than his own. But sadly, he discovers there are some things that artificial intelligence just can't do. AI's condition is much the same in real life. The computer science visionaries of the 1950s and '60s predicted with almost total certainty that machines would soon be able to understand and think like humans. But the evolution of AI has been far more prosaic--rather than priming a generation of robots to take over the world, it has become a pervasive tool that drives much of the technology behind finance, manufacturing, medicine, and a host of other industries.

In education, however, AI hasn't made much headway. In the one area where it would seem poised to lend the most benefit--assessment--the reliance on standardized tests, intensified by the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which holds schools accountable for whether students pass statewide exams, precludes its use. Standardized tests are graded consistently, with no allowance for individual student abilities or styles of learning, and no place for artificial intelligence's ability to decipher and shore up weaknesses.

This climate of broad-based accountability will make it difficult for AI programs to achieve acceptance at the federal level, says Kathy Mickey, senior analyst and managing editor of media research firm Simba Information's Education Group. Mickey has covered the educational testing market for more than 10 years, and most recently she edited Simba's report, "Academic Testing: PreK-12 Materials Market Analysis and Forecast 2008." She says that there's virtually no intelligent software being used in large summative testing programs.

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"A number of products are available that feature AI, but they're highly personalized, very individualized, and focus on intervention and individual education. States have tried to use them, but that isn't what the federal government is looking for."

Critics insist that despite government resistance, one-size-fits-all testing will soon be gone. For example, one theory held by some educators uses the concept of disruptive innovation to explain why standardized tests are doomed. The term was coined by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen to describe a new technology, process, or business model that replaces, or disrupts, an earlier one by being much more affordable or simpler to use. In his latest book, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw-Hill, 2008), Christensen and his colleagues, Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, assert that the US public school classroom model will be "disrupted" by technological innovations based on personalized instruction; as this occurs, student assessment will take place entirely in real time and be tailored to individual needs, phasing out traditional classroom testing.

That breakthrough may be a long time coming. "There's a difference between having a conversation about it and actually installing a testing program that meets the accountability standards of a federal law," Mickey points out. "Your framework is narrowed. There's been so much talk about individualized programs. The technology is there and available, and it has a lot of potential. But I doubt it will be used at the summative level."

Schools, however, aren't waiting on the feds to change course, as they continue to conduct their own individualized assessments. In fact, in 2008, Simba projects a 10 percent leap in the purchase of formative tests, whereby teachers monitor students' progress on a day-to-day basis. That surge, along with the expansion of online testing and increased testing in high schools and for English language learners and special education students, Simba says will propel a K-12 testing market increase from $2. …