Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Our love affair with numbers

I've spent a considerable amount of time and effort thinking about assessment. I've come to see our needless obsession with measurement and quantifiable data as the monster that ate education. I believe we are living in the data-driven dark ages. 

Alfie Kohn explains:
Too much is lost to us -- or warped -- as a result of our love affair with numbers. And there are other casualties as well: 
1. We miss the forest while counting the trees: Rigorous ratings of how well something is being done tend to distract us from asking whether what that activity is sensible or ethical. Dubious cultural values and belief systems are often camouflaged by numerical precision, sometimes out to several decimal places. Stephen Jay Gould, in his book The Mismeasure of Man, provided ample evidence that meretricious findings are often produced by impressively meticulous quantifiers. 
2. We become obsessed with winning: An infatuation with numbers not only emerges from but also exacerbates our cultural addiction to competition. It’s easier to know how many others we’ve beaten, and by how much, if achievements have been quantified. But once they’re quantified, it’s tempting for us to spend our time comparing and ranking -- trying to triumph over one another rather than cooperating. 
3. We deny our subjectivity. Sometimes the exclusion of what’s hard to quantify is rationalized on the grounds that it’s “merely subjective.” But subjectivity isn’t purged by relying on numbers; it’s just driven underground, yielding theappearance of objectivity. An “86” at the top of a paper is steeped in the teacher’s subjective criteria just as much as his comments about that paper. Even a score on a math quiz isn’t “objective”: It reflects the teacher’s choices about how many and what type of questions to include, how difficult they should be, how much each answer will count, and so on. Ditto for standardized tests -- except the people making those choices are distant and invisible. 
Subjectivity isn’t a bad thing; it’s about judgment, which is a marvelous human capacity that, in the plural, supplies the lifeblood of a democratic society. What’s bad is the use of numbers to pretend that we’ve eliminated it.
This is precisely why I believe assessment is not a spreadsheet -- it's a conversation. 

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