By Duane Swacker
Aesthetics and the Nature of Assessment
There are no facts, only interpretations. Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche couldn’t have known just how true his aphorism would eventually be in relation to assessing the teaching and learning process as many children at the end of the 19th century didn’t complete much schooling, perhaps only elementary school. Standardized tests for assessing what the student supposedly knows wouldn’t be invented for another few decades. From the advent of standardized testing the promoters of standardized tests have claimed the mantle of objectivity that the tests are a scientific method for assessing what a student has learned. This claim of scientific objectivity–supposed facts about what a student has learned has since been thoroughly debunked by Noel Wilson and standardized testing is rightly seen by some for the less than objective or scientific “interpretation” of student learning that it is.
In assessing (interpreting?) student work, the assessor necessarily starts with some assumptions, notions of perspective from which he/she bases his/her work. Some claim an objective frame, others a more subjective view. Part of each frame or notion is “what is the nature of quality?” and “how do we identify it?”, in other words the aesthetics of assessing. Aesthetics is the proper term as quality is a subset of beauty and the judging a work of art or of student work is properly viewed as an artistic expression and not a scientific one. What are some different frameworks in which we aesthetically judge the work of students?
Wilson, in his seminal 1997 dissertation “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error”, identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions or epistemological bases 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.
The Judge frame obviously is in the subjective camp although its proponents will tell you that they are objective. Most of us view the world through the Judge frame in our day in and day out interactions with the world where seeing is believing and damned be those who suggest that perhaps our perceptions are other than we think. Those in the Judge frame of mind know and identify beauty, grace, buffoonery, ugly, smart people or idiots and all those other daily descriptors we use—no need for Wittgensteinian word games or post-modern relativities. If you can’t plainly see what is there well then you’re just an ignoramus.
The General frame’s high priests, the psychometricians, would like you to believe that the General frame is in the objective scientific camp. It’s not! With their numbers and statistics, their correlation coefficients and item response theory, their validity and reliability pronouncements, and the supposedly standardization of the testing process, they loudly proclaim their scientificity credentials. They’re mistaken! The bulwarks of the General frame, of the psychometric world—educational standards and standardized testing–have rationo-logically been blown to bits, intellectually nuked by Noel Wilson in his “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error”. It is a testimony to his brilliant expose that the psychometric community has never refuted nor rebutted the study, attempting to bury it in the dustbin of history by not referring to it at all.
The proponents, growing every day in the competency based education (CBE) and the computerized so called individualized instruction movement of the Specific frame, also claim to have an objective means of assessing student work. They conveniently forget that the decisions about curriculum, what counts as objectives and activities and/or cut-off points for “competency” or passing a course or year of study are all very subjective in origin. If nothing else in public education one can count on old malpractices to be recycled into new ones such as programmed learning or outcome based education (OBE) from the 60s, 70s and 80s morphing into computerized competency based education being heavily promoted, usually by those who have a major financial stake in products developed, to accomplish such malpractices. Those older malpractices were abandoned because they didn’t work and made the teaching and learning process into a dry, dead monotony of worksheets and trivia.
All is not so gloom and doom, though, when it comes to assessing student learning as Wilson offers us a frame in which honesty and fidelity to truth obtain—the Responsive frame. The proponents of the Responsive frame freely and proudly admit that it is subjective. The interaction between the teacher and the student and his/her parents is such that the expectation is for the student to more fully understand where he/she is in relation to learning the subject matter at hand. Some will note that the responsive frame is not as efficient as a grade or simple mark may be. But in the long run it serves the teaching and learning process far better than any of the more supposedly efficient other three frames. Discursive give and take between the student and teacher, student portfolios, student performances assessed by both the teacher and student, and many other evaluative activities are valued for the fullness of assessment and student awareness of that assessing in contrast to the stilted assessment of the other frames.
Which frame then embodies the concept of “fidelity to truth”?
The Judge frame is obviously subjective in its practitioners’ proclamations of student learning assessment. And that fact is fine, except that it is never explicitly stated. In American public education the Judge frame dominates in the grading of students, even though most teachers will deny that fact for they have the percentages of points assigned to student work to prove that what they are doing is indeed objective. It’s not! The usage of percentage of points earned, almost always converted to a simplistic letter grade, is not measuring student work, i.e., objective, but subjective in all aspects from choosing curriculum to devising assessment devices and the number of points used. So by not explicitly stating up front the subjective nature of the Judge frame “fidelity to truth” is not obtained.
In contrast, the praticioners using General and Specific frames claim to be objective with their psychometric machinations and computer determined learning patterns. But the subjective nature of these frames is hidden behind psychometric jargon and behind the subjective human decisions that determine the course of instruction and grading parameters in either standards and standardized testing or computer and any programmed learning. The testing bible itself suggests this supposed objectivity “As in all scientific endeavors. . . .” in talking of validity issues. By obscuring the subjective nature of those malpractices the proponents of the General and Specific frames deceive the users and the general public. Where is “fidelity to truth” in that?
Which leaves us with the Responsive frame. The only frame in which the purely subjective nature of the teaching and learning process and of assessing student learning is acknowledged and used to further the student’s awareness of his/her being. And explicitly acknowledging that subjective nature, by working in the Responsive frame, allows educators to claim a “fidelity to truth” attitude, outlook and viewpoint.
Anything less than completely encompassing “fidelity to truth” in our assessment practices, which the Judge, General and Specific frames cannot do, can only cause many harms to the students resulting in injustices being foisted upon the students. And those harms and injustices, by definition, contradict and contravene the fundamental purpose of public education “to promote the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry” leaving us with the only right and just framework for evaluating student learning—the Responsive frame.
- For an interesting history of standardized testing see: “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy” by Nicolas Lemann.
- See his “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error”
- As defined by oxforddictionaries.com: Aesthetics (n) “A set of principles underlying and guiding the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.”
- Scientificity is a pseudo-scientific approach and/or having the appearance of scientific thought.
- Not a peep of a response to Wilson’s critiques of standards and standardized testing is found in the latest version of the testing bible “Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing.” How’s that saying go? The silence is deafening!
- See footnote #3 of the introduction.
- A more complete discussion of the lack of “fidelity to truth” of some of the practices, of validity and invalidity issues, of educational standards and standardized testing used in supposed measuring of student learning is to be found in Chapters 6