image_pdfimage_print

on the political philosophy of educational assessments

Ed Gordon has asked me to consult for a “Commission on the Future of Assessment” he is convening.

Dilemma: My work, particularly with Ray McDermott, has mostly been about ferreting the noxious side-effect of … assessments, and particularly of what follows even the most well conducted assessments by the most dedicated professionals.    McDermott and I are convinced that these noxious side-effects are structural features of assessments as currently sequenced within the life of a person as caught within a particular polity.  By this we mean that the consequences are not the product of the quality of the assessment (whether of the test or of the tester, of its validity or reliability).  They are the product of the way a test is required (when, by whom, for whom) and by the way the test results are subsequently used to inflect the career of a person in this or that direction (school tracking or admissions, treatments, therapies, not to mention employment).  In fact, from our point of view, the better the assessment as assessment, the more serious the consequences since they cannot be legitimately challenged.

Formally, this is a problem in the politics of assessment at the most philosophical level since it concerns the very organization of the good society and, in our times, of democracy.

The question Gordon is now asking me to address concerns the possibility of finding different ways to sequence assessments given my sense that the most powerful educational processes are not those controlled by schooling.

Let me indicate briefly whence I would start looking.  I have become somewhat bothered by all reports trumpeting the important of college graduation not only for personal happiness but also for material benefit.  When this is combined with arguments about the wealth of the nation in the competition between American and China, the arguments seem unimpeachable until one starts wondering about exactly what it is about “college graduation” that produces all these benefits—particularly in the United States where colleges are so varied in their curricula, pedagogies, not to mention “reputation.”  The issue soon becomes pathetic, if not politically explosive, when one reads about very small colleges, often in urban settings recruiting struggling working class people by using academic research to demonstrate that the enormous indebtedness the students are assuming will soon be repaid.  The admissions officials in such colleges do not quite tell potential students that colleges in the fourth rank are likely not to be those that were used in academic research (Posecznick 2010).  At the limit this is akin to selling very expensive snake oil aided and abetted by the federal government through its student loan programs.

All this might be something we should accept if we were sure that colleges do produce the experiences and skills businesses need, or that colleges are the most efficient way of gaining these experiences and skills.  But we must doubt this.  One has but to look at the school profile of many workers in the internet world to realize that a business that needs a good web site is more concerned with the product than with the credentials of the person who design it.  More research is urgently needed in what businesses actually do need, with subsequent discussions of where people should be prepared, or who should fund what part of the training (the person? the State? the business?)

One aspect of the possible shift from college graduation as a sort of general proxy is the question of how the business is going to assess whether the person has the needed skill.  Developing a special test for assessing this is quite a different thing than using “college graduation” as proxy.  What many do not consider is that the assessments that lead to college graduation (from grades to tests assessing the aptitude of people for college work) have a lot do with what interest colleges (and their faculty) and possibly little to do with whatever it is that we talk about when we talk about national wealth.

I will confess that I prefer a student excited about literature and philosophy than in a student excited about book keeping.  I am glad to have been part of a generation that pressured students to say there were excited by literature and philosophy so that they could become book keepers.  And yet, as I step out of my tower and into the market place, I am so glad for the many magnificent book keepers (insurance agents, car salesmen, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, bank assistants) that have helped me sell my apartment and buy a new house, and whose eyes have glazed when they hear that what I teach at Columbia is “cultural anthropology”…

image_pdfimage_print