Blog Post

Our Assessment Fetish

One function of a fetish is to translate some object in the world into something that, according to its essence, it is not. That is the sense in which I consider our assessment and accountability culture fetishistic. 

A brief guess at the history of it all: 

I suppose it was born a long time ago. Only recently has its logic become almost universalized. Everywhere you go now, aspects of our human experience... our being in the world... are being converted into numerical values and then... re-valued! I would target the last 30 or 40 years as the period of time over which this universalization has taken place. Computers and their programs make us... more like them. All the idea needed was a vehicle. 

But this isn't the only history one could tell. What of Bentham the father? Mill the mother? I think Mill was actually a tactic designed to subsume the opposition, a strategy aimed at reducing, as much as is possible, the human power of freedom (a power of the intellect more specifically). I know what Mill has to say about freedom (and what you have to say). What perplexes me is that the idea traveled so well. Of course imperialism played a role, but who knew that the technology of the late 19th century would have such an impact on our minds! Maybe it didn't. Minds and bodies aren't separate substances after all. But what unfolding of Substance expressed itself historically through these two attributes?

Lastly, I wanted to mention the Greeks. They would find our accountability and assessment culture foreign. Our notion of accountability involves a relationship between two people, a relationship between one person and several others, or a relationship between one person and a computerized reduction of others. Greek men had no need for this version of the concept. They were able to take care of themselves (the best translation of the inscription at Delphi). The Greek man's ability to keep watch over his Self (through hypomnemata of the Self) is what would render our notion of accountability useless and foreign. Only a Greek slave would need someone else to hold him accountable. And this is really worth thinking about!

Why would we need to be held accountable? Why would we want to be held accountable? What does the process of being made accountable eliminate from our lives? What effect have the indefinite and infinitesimal punishments of assessment had on our Selves and minds? How have the older concepts (the more Greek versions) of friendship, character, and community become strange to us? What kind of a human being are we breeding now? 

And if we are uncomfortable in this new world of economic adjustments and utility calculations, how do we resist this particular fetish... of translation... without being dismissed as recalcitrant?


1 comment

First, don't confuse assessment and evaluation - the world of Duncan, Pearson Learning, and the testo-philes make that confusion and try to enforce it. But there's a big difference. An assessment gives feedback in a useful and timely fashion; an evaluation justifies a judgment.

Second, don't confuse tests with either assessment or evaluation - tests are a means to many ends, some nice, some incredibly stupid, and some simply greed. And really don't confuse the bubble tests invented for the army in World War I and documented in national "standards" testing today as well as College Board and other instruments with realistic attempts to find out of the class should "move on," progress to other topics, or focus on gaps among its members. I once did a study of a school system and discovered that they routinely (for two decades) held back 25% of their 9th order to maximize their "gain scores" from 8th through 10th grades. That was not a test; it was tribute to an inept and greedy teacher, principal, and testing company.

Third, don't confuse test data with the "big data" inventors pretending to assess schools, colleges, cities, states or nations. That 25% held back more than demonstrates that often very obvious data are far more productive than the "big data" the data-lords are selling. Know what you're looking for from any kind of assessment; find it; use it; then talk about why and how and where it could be better.

Fourth, recognize that there have always been many alternatives to cheap testing tricks, and use them. There is an international ePortfolio movement, for example (google it!), as well as some remarkably creative self-assessment tools that came from the SCANS Commission in the 1990's, the Verified Resume of Kellogg and MacArthur grants, and have many visible examples (again, if you just google them). Fighting tests and test makers because of their injustice and greed is nice, but you won't win on that alone - that's why they make so much money and sell so hard. Fighting them with simple, often brilliant, frequently open-source alternatives and posts in YouTube channels, now that can win. Use the stuff the kids use to beat up the testing bullies with kid products themselves. Check out sites like high school channels, or projects that work using ePortfolios - best at high school, where interdisciplinary projects are more common. Realize that some of that stuff can be used as early as pre-school, and that Pearson & Co., are limited by their "top down" marketing to feds and states. Subvert, don't sit in a corner and wring your hands. Wring their necks instead.