[EAS] Thoughts about Grading

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Feb 5 02:56:26 EST 2004

Mail*Link¨ SMTP               Thoughts about Grading

Dear Colleagues -

Although the "Tomorrow's Professor" piece to follow below is about
paradoxes of standardized testing, the end of last semester is still
recent enough to have this piece stir me to more general reflections
about tests and grading.

Particularly, it puts me in mind of one of my favorite authors, Neil
Postman (whose sad passing in October 2003 did not get much public
attention). In "Technopoly" (1992) Postman points out how recent the
advent of tests and testing really is, and how any technology -- and
tests are a 'technical measurement', standardized tests all the more
so -- shifts the definition of what is being ascertained by testing.

In a moment I'll give you Postman's comments about testing. But let
me first explain that the Thamus he refers to is a legendary
Egyptian king mentioned in Plato's "Phaedrus" (which you will
readily find in the lower-level basement of Yale's Cross Campus
library). Socrates tells the story that when the [tellingly
one-eyed] Egyptian god Theuth, the inventor of of many things
including writing, wanted to make writing available to Egyptians,
King Thamus declined, explaining:

"Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not
the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who
practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing,
have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the
opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to
exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on
writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs
instead of by their own resources. What you have discovered is a
recipe for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your
pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they
will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,
and in consequence be thought very knowledgable when they are for
the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the
conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to

Postman wrote books, and I've read them and am writing this, so
Socrates would not be happy with either of us, unless perhaps after
we passed a long thorough oral inquisition. But what Thamus says is
a provocative metaphor for the effects of technology.

So here then is what Neil Postman said about testing, on pp.13-14 of
"Technopoly" (the paragraph breaks are mine, for a little easier
reading on a screen):

"... It is not always clear, at least in the early stages of a
technology's intrusion into a culture, who will gain most by it and
who will lose most. This is because the changes wrought by
technology are subtle if not downright mysterious, one might even
say wildly unpredictable. Among the most unpredictable are those
that might be labelled ideological. This is the sort of change
Thamus has in mind when he warned that writers will come to rely on
external signs instead of their own internal resources, and that
they will receive quantities of information without proper
instruction. He means that the new technologies will change what we
mean by "knowing" and "truth"; they alter those deeply embedded
habits of thought which give a culture its sense of what the world
is like--a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is
reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is
real. Since such changes are expressed in changed meanings of old
words, I will hold off until later discussing the massive
ideological transformation now occurring in the United States. 

Here I should like to give only one example of how technology
creates new conceptions of what is real and, in the process,
undermines older conceptions. I refer to the seemingly harmless
practice of assigning marks or grades to the answers students give
in examinations. This procedure seems so natural to most of us that
we are hardly aware of its significance. We may even find it
difficult to imagine that the number or letter is a tool or, if you
will, a technology; still less that, when we use such a technology
to judge someone's behavior, we have done something peculiar. In
point of fact, the first instance of grading students' papers
occurred at Cambridge University in 1792 at the suggestion of a
tutor named William Farish. 

No one knows much about William Farish; not more than a handful have
heard of him. And yet his idea that a quantitative value should be
assigned to human thoughts was a major step toward constructing a
mathematical concept of reality. If a number can be given to the
quality of a thought, then a number can be given to the qualities of
mercy, love, hate, beauty, creativity, intelligence, even sanity
itself. When Galileo said that the language of nature is written in
mathematics, he did not mean to include human feelings or
accomplishment or insight. But most of us are now inclined to make
these inclusions. Our psychologists, sociologists, and educators
find it quite impossible to do their work without numbers. They
believe that without numbers they cannot acquire or express
authentic knowledge.

I shall not argue here that this is a stupid or dangerous idea, only
that it is peculiar. What is even more peculiar is that so many of
us do not find the idea peculiar. To say that someone should be
doing better work because he has an IQ of 134, or that someone is
7.2 on a sensitivity scale, or that this man's essay on the rise of
capitalism is an A- and that man's is a C+ would have sounded like
gibberish to Galileo or Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson. If it makes
sense to us, that is because our minds have been conditioned by the
technology of numbers so that we see the world differently than they
did. Our understanding of what is real is different. Which is
another way of saying that embedded in every tool is an ideological
bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather
than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense
or skill or attitude more loudly than another."

There is of course much more, but this is getting long. And the
technology of computers has engendered an impatience with anything
longer than one screen length, if even that. Postman's "Technopoly"
is a marvellous book--highly recommended.

So finally on to the "Tomorrow's Professor" piece that prompted my

All best,  --PJK


"Among the controversies in education and schooling, perhaps nowhere
is contradiction more apparent than in tests and testing. 
Standardized testing has been a part of the American educational and
employment scene for almost 100 years. The recent lead article in 
Time Magazine's Oct. 27, [2003] issue describing some of the most 
significant changes in the SAT beginning in 2005 has renewed
interest in the long debate over the distinction between scholastic
aptitude and academic achievement. The article also underscores
this nation's continued ambivalence toward tests and testing."
	   "desk-top faculty development, one hundred times a year"
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The posting below is the second in the monthly series called
Carnegie  Foundation Perspectives. These short commentaries
exploring various  educational issues are produced by the Carnegie
Foundation for the  Advancement of Teaching
<<http://www.carnegiefoundation.org>.  The  Foundation invites your
response at:  CarnegiePresident at carnegiefoundation.org.

With respect to the posting below (November, 2003), Carnegie 
Foundation president, Lee Shulman notes:

	This month's commentary is written by Lloyd Bond and addresses the
	complicated topic of standardized testing. Lloyd, who is now a senior
	scholar with the Carnegie Foundation, has long worked with the
	College Board and other national organizations seeking to develop
	fair and valid assessment tools. He was a faculty member at the
	University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of
	Pittsburgh before joining Carnegie.

	This piece takes a personal and honest look at the often
	contradictory ways in which tests are seen and used. Formulating
	thoughtful policies about testing, at whatever level, depends on
	confronting our ambivalence regarding testing and acknowledging both
	its virtues and its problems. So, welcome once again to a Carnegie


Rick Reis
reis at stanford.edu
UP NEXT: Higher Education's Changing Environment

			Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

	------------------------------ 867 words ---------------------------

      A Different Way to Think About Testing - The Positive Uses of 

By Lloyd Bond

Several years ago the Washington Post featured a story on an African
American teenager in one of the D.C. schools who had obtained a
perfect 1600 on the SAT. Her teachers and other school officials
beamed with pride about what a dedicated, serious, and bright girl
this student was. Suddenly the SAT, so much maligned as a biased
gatekeeper of the establishment, a proxy for social class and racial
privilege with no real value as a predictor of college success, was
confirmation of a particular minority student's academic brilliance.

I was struck and mildly amused by the contradiction. Upon further
reflection, however, I realized that I was guilty of the same
inconsistency, and not just on one occasion or two, but over much of
my professional life. Like the labor union negotiator who berates
management for its mean-spirited stinginess, but tells the rank and
file they are the best paid workers in the world with the highest
standard of living, I realized that I had been telling contradictory
stories about test fairness and bias depending upon my audience. For
years I have complained to test development companies that they must
do a better job of test construction; that their tests are imperfect
and only modestly related to later success; that they must be
constantly vigilant to ensure that biases do not burrow their way
into the assessments. Being African American, I am often asked to
speak to minority students and their parents about testing. When
doing so, I have insisted that there is nothing wrong with the SAT,
the ACT, and other measures of academic achievement; that they must
not kill the messenger but heed the message; that they must knuckle
down and study hard.

Is this a case of intellectual dishonesty, or is there a deeper,
more subtle truth to be found here? To be sure, the labor negotiator
and I are not unique. Contradiction seems to inhere in the human
social fabric. Anyone searching for clean, simple, and unambiguous
solutions to the problems of school quality, religious strife, the
environment, affirmative action, homelessness, and a host of other
societal problems is in for bitter disappointment. Simple solutions
do not exist. Even in a search for guiding principles to live by,
one is confronted with contradiction and complexity. "Look before
you leap," but "He who hesitates is lost." Indeed, Aristotle's
famous prescription for health and longevity, "Moderation in all
things," has its polar opposite in the philosophy of the legendary
octogenarian Mae West who quipped, "Too much of anything can be

Among the controversies in education and schooling, perhaps nowhere
is contradiction more apparent than in tests and testing.
Standardized testing has been a part of the American educational and
employment scene for almost 100 years. The recent lead article in
Time Magazine's Oct. 27 issue describing some of the most
significant changes in the SAT beginning in 2005 has renewed
interest in the long debate over the distinction between scholastic
aptitude and academic achievement. The article also underscores this
nation's continued ambivalence toward tests and testing.

We are told by its defenders that the SAT is a superb measure of
academic promise, but its detractors insist that it is next to
useless in helping colleges and universities select their entering
class. Test-driven accountability systems have been criticized as
counter-productive, and praised as the best solution yet to failing
schools. Teachers insist that externally imposed standardized tests
distort instruction, but public officials and policy makers maintain
that well-constructed, curriculum-related examinations are the only
reliable and valid alternative to inflated grades. Commercial
coaching schools, not to mention students and their parents, insist
that coaching on admissions tests is highly effective and can raise
students' scores by hundreds of points; but test developers maintain
that coaching results in only minimal score gains over and above
regular instruction in school. Their defenders insist that
certification and licensure tests ensure standards of quality and
protect the public from incompetent practitioners, but critics
insist that performance on such tests is unrelated to professional
success and competence. And perhaps most controversial of all, test
critics insist that standardized tests are culturally biased against
minorities and the poor, while test developers insist that their
tests fairly reflect genuine differences in academic preparedness
that are the result of unequal educational opportunity.

Can any virtue be found in such a morass of contradictions and
partial truths? With respect to test bias at least, and perhaps in
other controversies as well, I believe so. In telling two different
stories to management and to his constituency, the labor leader was
attempting to get an agreement, to drive both parties toward each
other. In telling different stories to test developers and to
African American students and their parents, I was attempting to get
both parties on the same page, and to induce in both a certain
tension, a sense that they could, in fact, be wrong.

Just as an easy complacency on the part of test developers and users
is to be discouraged, so also is a defeatist conviction on the part
of students that their future is foreclosed, their educational
aspirations doomed by implacably biased tests that cannot be
mastered, even through hard work and study.
We invite you to respond to the author of the piece through
CarnegiePresident at carnegiefoundation.org

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