A Critique of The Markup’s Investigation into Predictive Models of Student Success

Recently, tech-journalism site The Markup ran a long, detailed, critical investigation of a predictive machine learning model used by the State of Wisconsin to identify public school students at risk of not graduating. I mostly agree with the conclusions of the piece – the system appears not to be fit for purpose and needs to be substantially improved – but I want to comment on several aspects of the model and the Markup’s reporting. Although I know nothing about the Wisconsin model beyond what is reported, I know a lot about predictive student success risk models, having led a team of data scientists who built related models used by colleges and universities when I worked at EAB from 2014 through 2016.

The Markup describes the Dropout Early Warning Systems (DEWS), a system that, for each Wisconsin 6th through 9th grader, predicts whether the student is likely to graduate from high school on time. Through deep reporting and access to internal data, they were able to learn a great deal about how the system works, and importantly, how well it works – or doesn’t – as a whole, and for racial and ethnic minorities.

Their conclusions include “DEWS is wrong nearly three quarters of the time when it predicts a student won’t graduate on time” and “it’s wrong at significantly greater rates for Black and Hispanic students than it is for White students.”

The three points I want to make are:

  1. It’s worthwhile to build predictive models of student success as part of advising and support systems.
  2. Getting these models to work well for racial and ethnic minorities is i mportant but difficult work, and it seems like the DEWS model got it wrong.
  3. Language and design matter, and both DEWS and The Markup seem to have confused notions of “accuracy” and “risk”, and how to communicate about model predictions.

Why build these models in the first place? Because of limited resources. In a perfect world, every student would have enough attention from expert advisors to support them at every step in their educational journey, getting them the help and resources that they need, so that they are engaged, learn successfully, and graduate on time. Both in K-12 and higher education, though, budgets do not allow this sort of bespoke advising team, and stretched-thin advising staff must do their best to support students who voluntarily seek help, while also doing limited outreach to other students who could most benefit from their support. But who will most benefit? This is where models can help, by triaging students, identifying those who should get a deeper look, and perhaps identifying useful avenues for outreach.

The Markup describes how the origin of the DEWS model was to support efforts to improve graduation rates by racial and ethnic minorities in Wisconsin, an important goal, and potentially a cost-effective way to do so. As they report, “94 percent of White students graduated on time last year, [but] only 82 percent of Hispanic and 71 percent of Black students completed high school in four years.” Something needed to change. However, it’s clear that the resulting model, and the system it is part of, is not helping the state build an equitable education system. Hopefully the attention the DEWS system is getting now, as a result of this reporting, will lead to improvements, and soon.

Much of the article describes how the system is less accurate for racial and ethnic minorities. They include a quote from a state employee involved in the system: “the model… over-identifies Black, Hispanic and other students of color among the non-on-time graduates.” That is, the model is mis-calibrated. Ideally, if this model were to say that 100 students are each 75% likely to graduate on time, then around 75 of those students should do so. In this case, it seems like the actual graduation rate for minority students with this risk score is higher than 75%, so those students are getting inappropriately flagged.

With models of this sort, it’s tempting to say “don’t use race or ethnicity as a predictor in the model”. The Markup quotes a professor who says “…[t]hey had demographic factors as predictors and that’s going to overemphasize the meaning of those variables and cause this kind of effect.” But ignoring race, ethnicity, or other correlated factors doesn’t make those factors, or the history of white supremacy, go away. In fact, it’s sometimes better to use those factors, but carefully.

The problem arises when the model is too simple, if it treats factors as information that gets added together, along the lines of those “you might be at risk for a heart attack: 3 points if you’re over 60, 2 points if you have high blood pressure, etc.” simple models you sometimes see in magazines. Learning from historical data, it’s easy for the model to improperly conclude that being non-white reduces your likelihood of graduation, yielding scores that are too low. A better approach is to identify other factors that may be differentially important based on a student’s race or ethnicity, and let the model estimate those “interaction” effects. In higher ed, for instance, it’s important to look at SAT or ACT scores in conjunction with race, because of known issues with those tests. Equally skilled minority students often get lower scores because of factors such as limited access to expensive prep classes. Everything else being equal, in some cases, a minority student with the same SAT score as a white student might be more likely to graduate!

Including race and ethnicity actually makes the models better, if you do so the right way, leveraging knowledge of how the world works and what the data means. A race-aware algorithm might treat SAT or ACT scores as less informative and predictive for non-white students, or might apply a correction to counteract the known bias. It’s pretty clear, from The Markup’s reporting, that DEWS and the State of Wisconsin did not try to do this.

The Markup repeatedly makes statements such as “[DEWS] was wrong nearly three quarters of the time it predicted a student wouldn’t graduate on time,” implying that the model is fundamentally flawed. But this issue is not about the model at all, it’s about the language used to describe the predictions.

The predictive model is only part of a larger system that also includes the human administrators who use the model’s scores to take action, or not. And humans aren’t great at interpreting numerical scores. So, a reasonable decision was made to discretize the 0-100 probability score (which, as described above, is well-calibrated if, when you take all of the students with a score of 80, 80% of them later graduate) into red/yellow/green risk categories, where in this case the red/yellow boundary is at 78.5. Given that most students in Wisconsin graduate, it’s probably reasonable to put a category boundary there, but only if the categories are described appropriately.

If you take a student with a score of 75 (indicating that you estimate that of 100 very similar students, 75 will graduate), and give them a “red” score, it’s critical that you not call this “high risk”, even if the student is in the riskiest group. Anybody unfamiliar with the technical details will assume that “high risk” means “very likely will not graduate,” which is incorrect in this case. Instead, all of the messaging around the model should be carefully designed to match peoples’ intuitive understanding of qualitative terms. A score of 75 means that the student will likely graduate!

Additionally, it’s important to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies, where the language used suggests that nothing can be done to improve a student’s odds or outcome. It’s too easy to interpret phrases like “high risk” as being an essential and unchanging part of a student’s being, not something that can and will change over time, or that could be changed with effort. Ideally, the model should be identifying students who would benefit from additional support, and describing them as such. I would recommend, in this case, using terms such as “needs support” or “investigate” instead of “high risk”. These terms should be used consistently in the system’s user interface, in training, and elsewhere.

And, if the threshold is indeed at 78.5, maybe red isn’t the right color? Red implies “something is on fire”, but a student who is currently 75% likely to graduate maybe just be yellow? Or maybe use an emoji like 👀 instead of a color, to indicate that it’s worth watching and supporting this student closely? Design decisions like this can drastically affect how the system is used, and thought and user research should go into ensuring that the users of a machine learning system work properly with it.

It’s clear from screenshots in the article that the authors of the DEWS tool missed an opportunity for good design, and so administrators and educators were mis-interpreting the results. The Markup reports a number of insightful comments that confirm this. It’s a shame that the system’s language is misleading, but the good news is that this sort of thing is relatively easy to fix, even without changes to the predictive model itself.

It’s also regrettable that the journalists at The Markup mis-understood this point, as it takes away from their strong critique of the model itself. The big issues with the predictive model are that it’s not very predictive – it seems to mostly provide scores in the relatively narrow range of 75 to 95 – and that for critical subgroups such as racial and ethnic minorities, its predictions are often biased high or low. Treating the design issue as a modeling issue confuses the matter, and misses an opportunity to discuss the importance of design to the system’s success. (The Markup does appropriately discuss how inadequate the training was, which is another common problem with this sort of system.)

Again, I applaud The Markup’s deep investigation into an important issue, and for that matter, I applaud Wisconsin’s efforts to attempt to address educational inequalities. Hopefully, student success models and systems in Wisconsin and elsewhere will continue to improve, allowing more students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to benefit from a strong education.