by Duane Swacker
I support the evaluation of the 8th grade N.A.E.P. reading scores for Florida. It is likely that the Florida ‘miracle’ of sudden large increases in fourth grade reading scores in the early days of school choice has nothing to do with teaching and learning. It has to do with retention policies and the exodus of low achieving students to voucher supported private schools. Half of these students then return to public schools in middle school
The scores for public schools go up in fourth grade when poor readers leave or are retained, and come down in eighth grade when they return. It is the age old problem of the failure to recognize that studies must compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.
It is important to know whether Florida’s assessment scores are artificial high in fourth grade. If so, the testing system itself is giving false reports of student progress. There is a deeper problem, however. Should we be relying on assessment scores in the first place? It is past time to be asking this question.
A reader, Duane Swacker, questions the need for more studies. The invalidity of accountability studies has already been determined, he asserts. He cites the evidence and questions my statement: “I welcome an evaluation of Florida’s school accountability approach to improving student learning.”
Actually, that “evaluation” has already been performed, back in 1997 by Noel Wilson. Any “reforms” (sic) that uses standardized testing as its basis is COMPLETELY INVALID as proven by Wilson. So that from the start the “reform”, actually educational malpractice, using student standardized test scores suffers all the foundational conceptual (onto-epistemological) errors and falsehoods that render any usage of the results, as Wilson puts it, “vain and illusory” (not to mention the unethical usage of using the results of a test for something other than what the test was designed.
For 15 years I’ve searched, begged and pleaded with testing supporters to show me where Wilson might have gone wrong with his analysis. Nothing, zilch, zero, more crickets than I hear from my nerve damage hearing loss and tinnitus. To understand his analysis please read is never refuted nor rebutted “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577/700
Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine.
1. A description of a quality can only be partially quantified. Quantity is almost always a very small aspect of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category only by a part of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as unidimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing the descriptive information about said interactions is inadequate, insufficient and inferior to the point of invalidity and unacceptability.
2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).
3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.
4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”
In other words all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.
5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. And a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.
6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.
7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”
In other words it attempts to measure “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?
My answer is NO!!!!!
One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:
“So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self-evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”