Test Data and Objectivity

According to Leonard Peikoff in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

To be ‘objective in one’s conceptual activities is volitionally to adhere to reality by following certain rules of method, a method based on facts and appropriate to man’s form of cognition.

My understanding of objectivity is that it is a realization that knowledge is an interaction between reality and man’s consciousness. The rub is that in any act of cognition, you need to take into account at least two identities–the relevant fact(s) you are looking at, and the nature of your consciousness.

When thinking on the nature of one’s consciousness, there is much to consider: consciousness is an integrating mechanism (it should integrate facts without contradiction, i.e. use logic), consciousness needs to take into account context and hierarchy, and consciousness must take into account purpose.

So, how does one objectively look at standardized test data? First one must ask, what are the relevant facts to look at? It turns out, it is more than just “the data.”

  • The nature of the test (For example: Since the test is multiple choice, a student can have no clue about the knowledge assessed, and still have a 25% chance of demonstrating that he does indeed have the knowledge assessed. Also, the “passing” grades for these tests are all in the 40-50% range, bringing into question their efficacy as assessments.)
  • The nature of the students (For example: My coworker found that the students on our campus are much more likely to miss the last 5-10 questions on the test, regardless of the subject. This points to a fact about our students that we already knew–they have poor cognitive endurance.)
  • Our purpose as educators (What is the result we are after as educators? Is it a student who does well on the assessment? Or, is it a critically thinking, productive, confident, and happy young adult with a reverence for knowledge? What is the relationship between these two options? Does one lead to or encompass the other?)

Dr. Peikoff also mentions one usage of the term “objective” in common use today that I think is telling:

People often speak of “objective reality.” In this usage, which is harmless, ‘objective’ means “independent of consciousness.”

But here is where I think harm is indeed done. Objectivity for most people is the goal, but since they see objectivity as meaning “independent of consciousness,” they do the exact opposite of what objectivity requires. Instead of using their consciousness more by making sure to apply it to all the relevant factors, they see it as a distorting factor and actually make a point to use it less.

This explains the popularity of any kind of test that can be transferred into a number. The number is considered objective, because no conscious effort was required to generate the number. Whereas an essay, a situation in which the student could more fully display what he does or doesn’t know, is considered not objective because the assessment of an essay requires an act of consciousness to assess it.

Of course, the tests, in the name of objectivity, are almost all multiple choice; and in the name of objectivity, the various numbers the tests generate will be debated and will somehow generate school policy. At this stage of our public school culture, the process is unavoidable. Let’s just make the effort to honestly and rigorously analyze all the relevant factors and keep the process as truly objective as possible.

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