(TIME) — An article in Education Week sparked a controversy recently when Thomas C. West, an evaluation specialist at Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, announced that he had devised a tracking formula that can predict, with startling accuracy, which students will drop out of high school. The formula can be applied as early as when students are in their second semester of first grade.

The predictive factors themselves — behavior problems, frequent absences from school, reading skills that are below grade level — are not so surprising. What is significant about West’s formula is the larger trend it represents and the practical and ethical issues raised by that trend.

Thanks to widespread automation and digitization, we now have access to more information, gathered at ever-earlier stages, about individuals’ performance at school.

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