In the 1990s, two professors at the University of Oregon developed a series of one-minute tests for elementary readers called Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS. The professors claimed that their tests and software could predict whether a child was on track to master reading at grade level by year’s end or was likely to fall behind.
Many reading instructors objected that the tests seemed to have little to do with reading comprehension. Instead, they measured skills such as rapid reading and pronouncing nonsense syllables. But the creators cited research demonstrating a strong correlation between performance on those tests and on longer, standardized exams.
DIBELS began catching on in districts across the country, eventually being adopted in 43 states. For the past several years, the drills have been available on handheld testing devices made by Wireless Generation, a New York-based company that has become a big supplier to New York City’s million-student school system.
Now, education analytics suddenly look poised to become a big business. In November, News Corp. agreed to acquire Wireless Generation for $360 million, and chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch cited the technology as a way to tap into a giant but underdeveloped market. “When it comes to K through 12 education,” he said in a press release, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone.”
That’s the total spent on teacher salaries as well as educational products and services. The emerging market for educational analytics is only a small slice of that, but it is already being cultivated by some of the world’s largest software vendors. Microsoft, IBM, and SAS Institute have all adapted their business intelligence software to help measure and predict the performance of K-12 students. The same programs that gather data about how companies serve customers and markets is now being applied to evaluate how schools serve students and meet larger educational goals. Microsoft cites early success analyzing student performance in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina. Meanwhile, SAS says its Educational Analytics Suite helped improve classroom performance in the Liberty Public School District in Missouri. In Houston, the 100,000-student Cypress-Fairbanks district is using IBM’s Cognos analytics to help administrators keep students in every class on track to pass an important annual state exam.
But since it often takes years for schools to change practices and adopt new technologies, the market has been taking off slowly. That’s why the News Corp. acquisition can be seen as validation that classroom use of predictive analytics constitutes a real business opportunity. “We’ve come a very significant way,” says Roland H. Good III, the University of Oregon education professor who, with Ruth Kaminski, developed DIBELS.