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Schooling Beyond Measure

Why do we focus on what is easiest to quantify, rather than what really matters in the classroom?

Photo Credit: Stephen Aaron Rees |


[This is a slightly expanded version of the originally published article.]

As we tend to value the results of education for their measurableness, so we tend to undervalue and at last ignore those results which are too intrinsically valuable to be measured. -- Edmond G. A. Holmes, chief inspector of elementary schools for Great Britain, 1911

The reason that standardized test results tend to be so uninformative and misleading is closely related to the reason that these tests are so popular in the first place.  That, in turn, is connected to our attraction to -- and the trouble with -- grades, rubrics, and various practices commended to us as “data-based.”

The common denominator?  Our culture’s worshipful regard for numbers.  Roger Jones, a physicist, called it "the heart of our modern idolatry . . . the belief that the quantitative description of things is paramount and even complete in itself.”

Quantification can be entertaining, of course:  Readers love top-ten lists, and our favorite parts of the news are those with numerical components -- sports, business, and weather.  There’s something comforting about the simplicity of specificity.  As the educator Selma Wassermann observed, “Numbers help to relieve the frustrations of the unknown, for nothing feels more certain or gives greater security than a number.” If the numbers are getting larger over time, we figure we must be making progress.  Anything that resists being reduced to numerical terms, by contrast, seems vaguely suspicious, or at least suspiciously vague.

In his book Trust in Numbers, historian Theodore Porter points out that quantification has long exerted a particular attraction for Americans.  “The systematic use of IQ tests to classify students, opinion polls to quantify the public mood…[and] even cost-benefit analyses to assess public works -- all in the name of impersonal objectivity -- are distinctive products of… American culture.” 

In calling this sensibility into question, I’m not denying that there’s a place for quantification.  Rather, I’m pointing out that it doesn’t always seem to know its place.  If the question is “How tall is he?”, “six-foot-two” is a more useful answer than “pretty damn tall.”  But what if the question were “Is that a good city to live in?” or “How does she feel about her sister?” or “Would you rather have your child in this teacher’s classroom or that one’s?”

The habit of looking for numerical answers to just about any question can probably be traced back to overlapping academic traditions like behaviorism and scientism (the belief that all true knowledge is scientific), as well as the arrogance of economists or statisticians who think their methods can be applied to everything in life.  The resulting overreliance on numbers is, ironically, based more on faith than on reason.  And the results can be disturbing.

In education, the question “How do we assess (kids, teachers, schools)?” has morphed over the years into “How do we measure…?”  We’ve forgotten that assessment doesn’t require measurement -- and, moreover, that the most valuable forms of assessment are often qualitative (say, a narrative account of a child’s progress by an observant teacher who knows the child well) rather than quantitative (a standardized test score).  Yet the former may well be brushed aside in favor of the latter -- by people who don’t even bother to ask what was on the test.  It’s a number, so we sit up and pay attention.  Over time, the more data we accumulate, the less we really know.

You’ve heard it said that tests and other measures are, like technology, merely neutral tools, and all that matters is what we do with the information?  Baloney.  The measure affects that which is measured.  Indeed, the fact that we chose to measure in the first place carries causal weight.  His speechwriters had President George W. Bush proclaim, “Measurement is the cornerstone of learning.”  What they should have written was, “Measurement is the cornerstone of the kind of learning that lends itself to being measured.” 

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