As the pandemic rages and the issue of testing is discussed in a medical context, I’ve found myself increasingly noticing the parallels between the the ways in which America has discussed and politicized Covid testing and the way in which America has politicized and discussed educational testing. These parallels between medical and educational testing have me wondering if it’s a human or American failing that leads to the being so easily seduced by as Alfred Binet, father of IQ testing, put it “a simple, brutal number, which can have only a deceptive precision.“
Over and over the media is flooded with images emphasizing the value of temperature checks in identifying those carrying the Covid-45 virus. Schools are using temporal thermometers before letting kids board the bus or enter buildings. Universities are quarantining anyone with temperatures exceeding a certain threshold. Once again, the thermometer has come to represent America’s abusive relationship with testing. Consider that photo array above. Note the various temperatures used to indicate the area of “concern.” Note how wide a range (from 36.5° to 38° C or, for the Americans reading this, 97.7° to 100.4°) is being communicated to students, parents, and the community about what constitutes where the line of infected vs not stands. These varied cut-offs are not only problematic on their own, their are also a dumbing down and misinterpretation of the science that told us to monitor temperature. Science told us that fever is one symptom that often presents with the Trumpvirus but in and of itself is not an indication of the virus. So to send students home or to quarantine them based on this one symptom is not quite the intention of the recommendation. Complicating matters is the fact that 98.6 isn’t even the right number for a normal temperature. Not only is 98.6 not definitive but there’s also not one number that is right for all people of all ages. Again, America has fallen victim to its attraction for the simplistic explanation for a complex problem.
Just like using a hard cut-off of 100.4° to indicate fever is a misapplication of medical science, the use of any standardized test score by itself demonstrates a misunderstanding of the science and a direct contravention of the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing standard 12.10. The use of standardized testing to make judgements on “giftedness,” deny otherwise qualified students educational opportunities, or reward the wealthy for greater time to prepare for the test is an abuse of testing that hurts education and the public good. Just as the CDC guidelines suggest using multiple criteria and using thermometers only in combination with other tools of evaluation, psychometricians have often argued that testing is not the sum of all aptitude, ability, or assessment of fitness for education opportunity and should be used in combination with other factors. A low test score might indicate that someone is unprepared but the what qualifies as low? What other factors are there to indicate that student will or won’t succeed.
And even if we are using the results from the thermometers properly, who’s to say that these tools are accurate? Who’s to say that this measuring tool is objective and equally effective for all people? Many Americans believe that a thermometer is a thermometer. Many Americans believe that thermometers are objective measures of a fixed universal quantity in all people. Those people are wrong. Thermometers effectiveness and accuracy vary greatly by type. Temperature readings are impacted by where on the body (head, armpit, butt) the temperature is taken, time of day, and even weather.
All of this is also true of “standardized testing.” If you think it’s ludacris to make Covid45 decisions based simply on a highly suspect thermometer, you should question our continued reliance on educational testing to make decisions about intelligence, preparedness, or ability.