Strange Days, Man, Strange Days

Some desire, seek, demand, brag about, identify boldly on business cards and resumes, and insist upon recognition, applause for and deference to plainly made-up “certifications.” While simultaneously dismissing, decrying and demeaning any form of standardized criterion or measure to demonstrate ability.

The subject is one of broad interest.

The October 12 issue of Time magazine reports on “Bubble Trouble,” Eliza Gray’s story on SATs. The September 18th magazine section of The Chronicle of Higher Education is entirely devoted to “The Credentials Craze.”

We’ve become masters at questioning and quarreling about the scientific reliability and validity of standardized measures – tests, or instruments. And the loudest, most vociferous and least informed voices belong, of course, to the non-scientists, those least able to intelligently discuss scientific reliability and validity.

It’s as though someone thought it a good idea that lifeguards need not take a swimming test before being assigned to the community pool. Or that if such a test was required, the judges could be non-swimmers.

An aside: at the gym where I’m a member, a gentleman wearing a shirt with “GUARD” neatly printed on its back is rarely poolside. Instead, he’s on the phone, smiling, 250 feet away. Hey, someone has to do it.

We demand competence while eschewing any external measure of it, content, instead, to rely on the assertions of the individual. We insist upon perpetuating myths so as to avoid the negativity associated with inadequacy or failure to perform: every runner is a winner.

At institutions of higher education, on the other hand, assessment has run amok. Once accomplished by a single individual, it has grown into an empire. Interestingly, the assessment is directed at the teachers, not the students.

Assessment used to mean a measure of what one knows – not what one is capable of knowing, claims to know, their potential to know or what one is predicted to know at some future point.

We take grammar school teachers of fiction and put them in charge of assessment. We require community service while labeling it “volunteering.” We valorize the singularly focused study-of-me in a school of individualized studies and claim some broader educational outcome. We insist upon the merits of extracurricular activities and, as a way of demonstrating our insistence, assign curricular credit all the while maintaining the original label.

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