Sunday, July 17, 2011

Southeastern European Food for Thought

I am currently reading Maja Wilson's Rethinking Rubrics which (so far) is essentially a soup to nuts examination of how we assess writing in the United States.  I pause to share an excerpt from the second chapter, There is a Cow in Our Classroom, because of the enormity of its implications:

Robert Yerkes, professor at Harvard and president of the American Psychological Association, was hired by the military around 1920 to develop and administer an intelligence test to all of its recruits.  Yerkes used a multiple-choice format, created by Arthur Otis in 1915.  Yerke's creation, the Army Alpha test, was the first large-scale multiple-choice test to be administered, and it publicity and popularity would pace the way for  the same technology to be used by writing assessments.
The multiple -choice format served the demands of standardization and ranking beautifully, allowing anyone anywhere to score the same test in exactly the same way in a short amount of time.  Another bonus of the multiple-choice format was that the results of the test could be quickly grouped, categorized, and analyzed in a number of  ways, individual test-takes and groups of people could be ranked, sorted, and analyzed.  In association with The National Academy of Sciences, Yerkes analyzed the results of the Army Alpha test, announcing that native-born American whites had scored the highest on the test and that of all the immigrant groups, those born in southeastern Europe scored the lowest.  Carl Brigham, who had worked as Yerkes' assistant to develop the Army Alpha test, did his own analysis, concluding that "'selective breeding' would purify and preserve the intelligence of Americans" (Caruano 1999, 12).  Added to the growing anti-immigrant backlash, Yerkes' announcement and Brigham's conclusions led to the National Origins Act of 1924, which established quotas for all immigrants to the United States.  The most severe restrictions applied to no other group than eastern and southern Europeans--those who had scored lowest on the Army Alpha test.  Multiple choice testing had become a powerful tool of discrimination.

The chapter goes on to study the history of assessment in our country and how Harvard specifically had its sticky crimson paws all over it--all in the name of ranking students.  Wilson continues to trace the development of this demand by institutions of higher education for a better and more efficient way of evaluating writing...and rubrics were born.

In the end though, I had to pause before I moved on to read the third chapter to think aloud a bit and simply share the fact that discrimination is somehow tangled within the history of writing assessment, and I can't help but wonder if it still is as rubrics are still firmly rooted in place and in many schools the use of rubrics drives the curriculum.

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