A few days ago, I picked “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist” as my second underlying assumption of education discourse, and I wanted to say a little more about this. I’ve been pondering this one a lot recently. I’ve noticed that, even people who generally reject the value of standardized tests and take a broad view of the role of education, inevitably focus comparative research around standard assessments of the classic “academic” subjects (see here for a summary of research comparing the outcomes of Montessori to traditional schools). At least in the “Montessoriverse,” there is some great work bringing modern psychological and cognitive work to bear on Montessori education, but I rarely see this kind of research being used seriously in broader discussions about education. (Sometimes, similar research gets used to design new programs, and sometimes it even gets reported on in the press, but this work seems pretty narrowly focused on “how can we improve performance in the three Rs,” which will most likely be measured with a standardized assessment.)
There’s one very good reason for Montessorians and the like to focus their meant-for-public-consumption comparative research on the standard academic subjects and on performance on standardized assessments: in the larger educational (and media) community, standardized assessments of reading and math skills are all that counts. This is even more true now that we have No Child Left Behind, which makes these values the law of the land, at least here in the US.
I can’t help but wonder, though, how much of this obsession is really an obsession with academic basics, and how much is an obsession with universal, standardized, “scientific” measurement (though how this is actually scientific is beyond me). If we had standardized measures of those traits that the Montessori community holds dear–independence, creativity, ethical values, etc–would the rest of the world pay more attention? Or would they still dismiss this focus as a bunch of wishy-washy schlock that’s not going to help us compete against China and India in the 21st Century anyway? Sadly, probably the latter, but it’s still interesting to ponder whether having the ability to measure these sorts of “higher” skills would make them “exist” in the eyes of the media, or Congress, or local school boards. (Of course, if we ever did invent such assessment tools, how long would it be before students are mandated to receive a particular score on the Texas Assessment of Critical Thinking and all focus on critical thinking gets lost in an obsessive panic about raising test scores?)
Note: For all I know, this question has already been answered. I don’t know of any standardized assessments like this, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Someone may have invented them, and they are just so uninteresting in the context of mainstream discourse on education that I’ve never heard of them.