Infidelity to Truth: Education Malpractices in American Public Education: Chapter Six

By Duane Swacker

About Duane

Chapter 6

Of Standards and Measurement

Truth is not only violated by falsehood; it may be equally outraged by silence. Henri Frederic Amiel

How can anyone be against having standards in the classroom, standards for behavior or learning?  Kind of hard to argue against, eh!  What is so wrong with holding students accountable to educational standards?  Nothing!  Except when the term standard is inappropriately and incorrectly used to mean one thing while purporting to signify another, in other words lacking fidelity to truth.

Surely we need to and must measure student achievement.  How are we going to know how the student stands up to the standard?  How are we to know how the students in one class, district or state do in comparison to other classes, districts or states if we don’t measure student achievement?

The silence is deafening in regard to the lack of logical thought and the abuse of the language that permeates educational discourse in the standards and measurement movement.  The standards and measurement meme in public education has been a part of policies and practices for at least the last quarter of a century.  Even before NCLB, state departments of education were making and disseminating “standards” as guides for classroom curriculum.  And the emphasis was being guides and not some supposed “standard” against which educational outcomes could be supposedly “measured” for not only the student but teacher, school and district.  It wasn’t until the passage of NCLB in 2001 that the standards and measurement meme has come to completely dominate not only school life but the policy and practice arenas from the legislatures to state departments of educations to district boards and into the schools.

The standards and measurement movement is choking the life out of our public school classrooms!

It is causing innumerable harms to students, distorting curriculum and the teaching and learning process, many times into a year-long test prep program, causing districts to drop many electives, foreign languages, band, choir, and many others not related to the two main tested subjects English and Math.  Not only that but in the elementary level many students are now deprived of much needed recess/play time, gone are learning stations in favor of drill and kill methods of attempting to raise test scores.  Ever increasing test scores have become the predominant driver of curriculum since NCLB was signed into law.

In order to untangle this mess of educational malpractices that standards and measurement discourse has brought about we first need to examine exactly what are standards and measurements in a broader logical context which then will enable us to ascertain just how damaging the misuse of language, the twisted use of logic that makes the standards and measurement movement appear to be THE way to improve the teaching and learning processes in American public schools.  It will then be shown that using the false and error filled practices of educational standards and standardized testing contravene the fundamental purpose of public education causing, at times, irrevocable harm to the student in not guaranteeing “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.

The word standard is in the top 1000 most used words in American English and the Miriam Webster online dictionary gives the following definitions:

Standard

1:  a conspicuous object (as in a banner) formerly carried at the top of a pole and used to mark a rallying point especially in battle or to serve as an emblem

2a:  a long narrow tapering flag that is personal to an individual or corporation and bears heraldic devices  b:  the personal flag of the head of state or of a member of a royal family  c:  an organization flag carried by a mounted or motorized military unit  d:  banner

3:  something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example:  criterion <quite slow by today’s standards>

4:  something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of a quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality

5a:  the fineness and legally fixed weight of the metal used in coins  b:  the basis of value in a monetary system <the gold standard>

6:  a structure built for or serving as a base of support

7a:  a shrub or herb grown with an erect main stem so that it forms or resembles a tree  b:  a fruit tree grafted on the stock that does not induce dwarfing

8a:  the large odd upper petal of a papilionaceous flower (as of the pea)  b.  one of the three inner usually erect and incurved petals of an iris

9:  a musical composition (as a song) that has become a part of the standard repertoire

For the purposes of this discussion, obviously definitions 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 do not concern us.  It is the somewhat similar and perhaps inter-confusing definitions of 3 and 4 that interest us.

As mentioned above before NCLB the definition of standard as used in the individual state’s curriculum standards and even today in curriculum standards promulgated and promoted by subject area organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics or the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages the term standard as used fell/falls under definition three as they were never meant to be used as “a rule for the measure of a quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality” as in definition four but as a model for teachers to use.  Confusing indeed!

Another way to look at the concept of standards is that there are two accepted types of standards, metrological and documentary.

Metrology is the science of measurement and a metrological standard “is an object, system, or experiment that bears a defined relationship to a unit of measurement of a physical quantity.  Standards are the fundamental reference for a system of weights and measures, against which all other measuring devices are compared. Measurements are defined in relationship to internationally-standardized reference objects, which are used under carefully controlled laboratory conditions to define the units of length, mass, electrical potential, and other physical quantities.

A documentary standard “is a document established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context.

Many governmental departments promulgate documentary standards, for example the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) while at the same time being the certifying agent to ensure that the standards are followed.  The ISO promulgates international standards but is not the certifying agency, other agencies do the certifying of companies compliance with their standards.  From the EPA:

“When developing regulations, the first thing we do is ask if a regulation is needed at all. Every regulation is developed under slightly different circumstances but this is the general process: 

Step 1: EPA Proposes a Regulation 

The agency researches the issues and, if necessary, proposes a regulation, also known as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). The proposal is listed in the Federal Register (FR) so that members of the public can consider it and send their comments to us. The proposed rule and supporting documents are also filed in EPA’s official docket on Regulations.gov 

Step 2: EPA Considers Your Comments and Issues a Final Rule 

Generally, once we consider the comments received when the proposed regulation was issued, we revise the regulations accordingly and issue a final rule. This final rule is also published in the FR and in EPA’s official docket on Regulations.gov. 

Step 3: The Regulation is Codified in the Code of Federal Regulations 

Once a regulation is completed and has been printed in the FR as a final rule, it is codified when it is added to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The CFR is the official record of all regulations created by the federal government. . . . ” 

The ISO has strict rules for making and issuing standards.  The key principles in standard(s) development:

1.  ISO standards respond to a need in the market.

ISO does not decide when to develop a new standard, but responds to a request from industry or other stakeholders such as consumer groups. Typically, an industry sector or group communicates the need for a standard to its national member who then contacts ISO.

2. ISO standards are based on global expert opinion.

ISO standards are developed by groups of experts from all over the world that are part of larger groups called technical committees. These experts negotiate all aspects of the standard, including its scope, key definitions and content.

3. ISO standards are developed through a multi-stakeholder process.

The technical committees are made up of experts from the relevant industry, but also from consumer associations, academia, NGOs and government.

4. ISO standards are based on a consensus

Developing ISO standards is a consensus-based approach and comments from all stakeholders are taken into account.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and all other state educational standards might be considered a documentary standard but in the development of the standards no procedures have followed the formal protocol and processes as outlined by the OSI or government agencies in their development.

In addition to that and perhaps even worse is that the proponents of these standards claim that the CCSS are standards against which ‘student achievement’ can be measured.  In doing so educational standards proponents claim the documentary standard (definition three) as a metrological standard (definition four).  In doing so they are falsely claiming a meaning of standard that should not be given credence.

This confusion is compounded by what it means to measure something and the similar misuse of the meaning of the word measure by the proponents of the standards and testing regime.  Assessment and evaluation perhaps can be used interchangeably but assessment and evaluation are not the same as measurement.  Word usage matters!

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of measure includes the following:

1a (1):  an adequate or due portion (2):  a moderate degree; also: moderation, temperance (3):  A fixed or suitable limit:  bounds <rich beyond measure> b:  the dimensions, capacity or amount of something ascertained by measuring c:  an estimate of whit is to be expected (as of a person or situation d: (1):  a measured quantity (2):  amount, degree

2a:  an instrument or utensil for measuring b (1):  a standard or unit of measurement—see weight table (2):  A system of standard units of measure <metric measure>

3:  the act or process of measuring

4a (1):  melody, tune (2):  dance; especially:  a slow and stately dance  b:  rhythmic structure or movement: cadence:  as (1):  poetic rhythm measured by temporal quantity or accent; specifically:  meter (2):  musical time c (1):  a grouping of a specified number of musical beats located between two consecutive vertical lines on a staff (2):  a metrical unit:  foot

5: an exact divisor of a number

6:  a basis or standard of comparison <wealth is not a measure of happiness

7:  a step planned or taken as a means to an end; specifically:  a proposed legislative act

Measure as commonly used in educational standard and measurement discourse comes under definitions 1d, 2, and 3, the rest not being pertinent other than to be used as an obfuscating meaning to cover for the fact that, indeed, there is no true measuring against a standard whatsoever in the educational standards and standardized testing regimes and even in the grading of students.  What we are left with in this bastardization of the English language is a bewildering befuddle of confusion that can only serve to deceive many into buying into intellectually bankrupt schemes that invalidly sort, rate and rank students resulting in blatant discrimination with some students rewarded and others punished by various means such as denying opportunities to advance, to not being able to take courses or enroll in desired programs of study.

The most misleading concept/term in education is “measuring student achievement” or “measuring student learning”.  The concept has been misleading educators into deluding themselves and others that the teaching and learning process can be analyzed/assessed using “scientific” methods which are actually pseudo-scientific at best and at worst a complete bastardization of rationo-logical thinking and language usage.

There never has been and never will be any “measuring” of the teaching and learning process and what each individual student learns in their schooling.  There is and always has been assessing, evaluating, judging of what students learn but never a true “measuring” of it.

The TESTS MEASURE NOTHING, quite literally when you realize what is actually happening with them. Richard Phelps, a staunch standardized test proponent (he has written at least two books defending the standardized testing malpractices) in the introduction to “Correcting Fallacies About Educational and Psychological Testing” unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag with this statement:

Physical tests, such as those conducted by engineers, can be standardized, of course, but in this volume, we focus on the measurement of latent (i.e., nonobservable) mental, and not physical, traits.

Notice how he is trying to assert by proximity that educational standardized testing and the testing done by engineers are basically the same, in other words a “truly scientific endeavor”.  The same by proximity is not a good rhetorical/debating technique.

Since there is no agreement on a standard unit of learning, there is no exemplar of that standard unit and there is no measuring device calibrated against said non-existent standard unit, how is it possible to “measure the nonobservable”?

PURE LOGICAL INSANITY!

Finally, what the proponents of the educational standards and standardized testing regime don’t appear to understand is that in many areas of human interactions and feelings there cannot be any measurement.  How does one measure the love of one’s spouse, children, parents or friends?  How does one measure what is going on in the heart and mind of a distressed person who has just lost a loved one?  Why do we even begin to think that we can measure what goes on in the body and brain of the student who is learning any subject matter considering all the various hormonal and endocrinal influences occurring outside the individual’s control, with the hundreds of millions if not billions of neuronal firings going on at any given moment that partially influence what happens in the mind of the student in a teaching and learning situation?  How do we believe that the thousands and thousands of environmental influences on each individual could begin to be measured and accounted for?  Are proponents of the educational standards and standardized testing “measurement” regime that arrogant, hubristic and presumptuous to believe that they hold the key to supposedly measuring the teaching and learning process or more specifically, the learning, aka, student achievement, of an individual student?

Considering the facts of the misuse of language, logic and common sense as outlined above, the only wise course of action is to immediately cease and desist, to abandon, those malpractices that harm so many students and contravene the state’s responsibility in providing a public education for all students.  The billions of dollars spent by states on the educational standards and standardize testing regime would then be freed up to provide a better education for all students through perhaps such things as smaller class sizes, needed social services, foreign language instruction, arts programs, etc.  And the state, by approving and mandating the fake standards and false measuring of student learning that are the malpractices of educational standards and standardized testing, by not adhering to a regimen of fidelity to truth is surely guilty of not promoting “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.


  1.  I purposely used “do” and not “are learning” as the teaching and learning process is not amenable to simplistic comparisons.
  2.  Yes, play time.  The research on the importance of play time for elementary (K-8) students in social and academic development is overwhelming.
  3.  And that dominance was greatly enlarged by the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” federal mandates in 2009.  What a bizarrely craven way to attempt to improve the teaching and learning process, by having states compete for monies only if they enacted certain unethical malpractices such as using standardized testing not only for sorting and ranking students but also evaluating teachers and schools districts.
  4.  From the Oxford Online Dictionary, see: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/top1000/american_english
  5.  See:  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/standard
  6.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_(metrology)#cite_note-1
  7.  From the National Institute for Standards and Technology
  8.  ISO is the French acronym used in describing standards.  In English the ISO means the International Organization for Standardization.
  9.  From the EPA website: https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/basics-regulatory-process
  10.  See:  http://www.iso.org/iso/home/standards_development.htm
  11.  The scope of this study does not include a discussion of the nefarious process by which the CCSS were made and forced upon the states through what might easily be considered monetary extortion by the Federal Department of Education.
  12.  Now whether that claim, a documentary standard as a metrological one, is intentionally misleading or not I leave up to the reader.  Personally I don’t believe they have the knowledge to understand the difference.  And while that attempt may be well intentioned we know that “The road to hell. . . . “
  13.  See:  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/measure
  14.  The suggestions only begin to scratch the surface of what might be done and which must be determined by each public school community.
  15.  The false and misleading language embedded in these practices surely must qualify them for the designation of malpractice.

 

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