Friday, March 6, 2009

Testing and America's Unspoken Abuse of Children

In a recent post to the Gerald Bracey's EDDRA (aka, Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency) discussion list, Mark Shapiro, who blogs as The Irascible Professor, wrote regarding FairTest, a group that monitors and fights against the abuse of standardized and other tests:

I'm no great fan of PISA. But really "Fair Test" is basically "No Test".

While I don't think that high stakes tests alone should be used to determine a student's fate, I do think that standardized tests have a useful place in the assessment of educational progress both at the individual and global level.

Just as there are no perfect teachers, no perfect teaching techniques, there likely will never be perfect tests. But that doesn't mean the tests are worthless. Imperfect knowledge is better than complete ignorance.

My response

I think that in fact there are times where ignorance is actually better than partial knowledge, especially if one uses the partial knowledge as if it were complete knowledge with the power for prediction we normally reserve for physical laws. People who recognize the extreme limitations of their partial knowledge and proceed with utmost caution seem to be all too few when it comes to educational and psychological testing and measurement, unfortunately for all of us (except maybe those who profit from acting as if limited knowledge is omniscience).

So-called "intelligence" testing has a particularly long, ugly, racist, xenophobic, and highly politicized history, perhaps more so in the US than anywhere else on the planet (England may be the runner-up, but I'm not certain of that). Much of that history spilled over quite predictably into education, with destructive results for millions of Americans (not to mention those would-be Americans left stranded to die in Nazi camps in Europe because they could not emigrate to the US under restrictive immigration laws passed by Congress in 1923 due in no small part to Carl Brigham's testimony that was grounded in the meaningless results of Yerke's data from the Army Intelligence Tests given during WWI recruitment:

The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it. There is no reason why legal steps should not be taken which would insure a continuously upward evolution.

The steps that should be taken to preserve or increase our present intellectual capacity must of course be dictated by science and not by political expediency. Immigration should not only be restrictive but highly selective. And the revision of the immigration and naturalization laws will only afford a slight relief from our present difficulty. The really important steps are those looking toward the prevention of the continued propagation of defective strains in the present population. (Brigham 1923) (The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould, p. 260)

The horror and wrongness of what he'd done led Brigham to later publicly recant:
“This review has summarized some of the more recent test findings which show that comparative studies of various national and racial groups may not be made with existing tests, and which show, in particular, that one of the most pretentious of these comparative racial studies—the writer’s own—was without foundation.” [Brigham, C. C. 1930. Intelligence test of immigrant groups. Psychological review 37:158-165. (p.165)]

though this didn't help the dead people he helped doom.)

The damage done to kids through the abuse of tests of all sorts (psychological, academic, and so forth) is never going to be fully documented. It goes on every day. It is not for the most part a matter of willful abuse, of course: few educators have adequate training in assessment. Far fewer still have any real understanding of statistics or psychometrics. Given some comments on this and other lists I read, I'd say that some opinions here appear to reflect similar ignorance.

The conclusion isn't to do away with tests. Assessment is necessary. It's the nature of assessment, the quality of the tests, the way in which test results are used (or misused) and the purposes behind testing that must be vigilantly interrogated at all times. I see nothing to lead me to the conclusion that FairTest is against testing. What it is against, as we all should be, is testing abuse. The idea that any data is better than no data is ridiculous if the damage done by collecting the data and then misusing it can be reasonable shown to far outstrip the good done with it.

If someone knows and openly admits that the meaning and usefulness of data s/he collects is highly speculative at best, and vigilantly seeks to protect those being assessed and others from unfair punishment and needless suffering (assuming anyone really has that much power), then it may be ethical to collect that data in hopes that it will lead to better, less speculative understanding and assessment in the future. But it is far more common that what in fact occurs is that test results become the evils unleashed from Pandora's Box, and no one has the power to return them to that box once it is opened. Kids are wrongly made to feel stupid and to suffer, pushed around in the school system in idiotic ways, all because of bad testing practices. Teachers, schools, administrators, districts, states (and now even nations) are wrongly viewed and mistreated due to unethical and/or ignorant abuse of basic principles of psychometrics. Parents and non-parents alike suffer as their property values are hurt by test scores, regardless of whether those scores mean a great deal or nothing at all.

And what makes this all so heinous is that there are ostensibly intelligent people, some with backgrounds in mathematics and/or science (but apparently not in statistics or psychometrics) who become apologists or even cheerleaders for bad testing practices and attack mercilessly anyone who dares even question what's going on. In my experience, such people are invariably politically and/or economically motivated, and the most polite word I can use for this practice is "unethical," though some may prefer one of the following: immoral, amoral, hypocritical.

Once again, there is nothing wrong with the idea of assessment, but there is much wrong with how it's done in this country and a great deal of evil perpetrated as a result of testing abuse.

For further reading on this vital subject, I recommend the following:

Gould, Stephen Jay: The Mismeasure of Man

Hoffman, Banesh: The Tyranny of Testing

Mansell, Warwick: Education By Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing

Nichols, Sharon L. and Berliner, David C.: Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools

Owen, David: None of the Above: Behind The Myth Of Scholastic Aptitude

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