Reasonable Words: Outcomes and “epistemic suicide”

A think piece in the Chronicle of Higher Ed by philosopher Steven Hales takes on one of today’s most sacred of educational sacred cows, “Outcomes assessment.” Pretty easy to show that you get stuck in an unending chain of inferences about whether some educational objective has ever been met. (If you can’t trust grades, then you can go to high stakes tests, if you can’t trust high stakes tests, you can go to oral exams, if you can’t trust exams you could go to papers. But at some point, you just have to give up the ghost and trust that there is some relationship between how you are evaluating something and the thing itself, even if it is as tenuous as the shadows on Plato’s Cave.) From his article:

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“Yet the mavens of outcomes assessment do exactly the wrong thing—they pretend to have some other method that is the royal road to truth when, prey to the same doubts, it is no more than the path to ignorance.”

Hales is surely right about the shaky philosophical grounds for this current fad of objective assessment (to me part of a much larger obsession with data which has created all kinds of philosophically corrupt endeavors). Not sure that any assessment would escape his philosophical charges, though.

To somebody who has done a lot of work documenting K-12 teaching practice, a more mundane problem occurs: Outcomes assessment in the form of high stakes tests takes too much time and money away from experiencing the content itself. And although contentious, there are definitely some people who have raised quality concerns about the tests and the grading. The “upshot,” as my calculus teacher liked to say, Outcomes assessment, often badly done and probably not worth doing anyway?


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