Learning, Knowing, Assessment and Validity
Dewey’s theory of spiraling education was evidenced in my own educational experiences, so I am pausing here before I introduce the next theorists in order to convey something of the way that theory, experience and insight became interwoven as I proceeded along this path. It is beyond the scope of this paper to go deeply into the subject of assessment, but as a working teacher (and as a student) the issue is an unavoidable part of the path, as the stories and theorists below illustrate.
My application for admission into the Vermont College Thematic Cycle in Creativity Master of Arts program required me to articulate my goals for entering the study. It had been over 2 decades since I’d graduated from college, and in an effort to reconnect with the sensibility of scholarly inquiry, I did some research on research. This is when I first discovered Trochim’s work on validity, which I will review shortly.
During the same period I was teaching and tutoring in a K-8 parochial school, and the connections I made between the first of the two stories below and the work of Trochim provided a framework for the explorations I conducted as a participant in this program. Educators are social scientists, philosophers and practitioners. In this balance I felt I was most lacking in understanding the requirements for integrity in the field of social science. Trochim’s writings were immensely helpful in this regard. Reflection and synthesis then became further interwoven with new theories and experiences, such as my review of the writings of von Glasersfeld and the second story below.

Two Stories About Too Many A’s
Part 1:
I was tutoring Sandra, a fifth grader, once a week. This particular Wednesday I was asked to tutor her in religion, which she was consistently doing poorly in. She had a test coming up the next day, so we went over the various parts of the chapter in question in her religion book.
Sandra was often distracted, and benefited from tossing a ball or walking around the room as we went over the questions--that was typical of her. Today, however, she'd stop moving just to talk about various details of the material--and this was unusual for her.
Weeks before, when we'd started working together, I asked Sandra what her favorite subject was in school, because I believe it's critical to see and understand the child as a whole being, and because a child's natural interest can provide an "in" if we get stuck somewhere along the way.
Sandra said her favorite subjects were handwriting and recess. That was it.
But now, as she spoke about the details of the Saints and the communion, she was charged with energy. Clearly she enjoyed this subject, it's just that she wasn't doing well in it.
On Friday as I was walking by Sandra's classroom, her teacher called to me to come in. "Sandra," she asked, "don't you want to show Miss Susan?" Sandra proudly presented me with her test; she had gotten an "A". It was the first time and she was visibly proud. I congratulated her.
Later I bumped into Sandra's teacher in the hall. "I don't know about that test," she said. "I'm afraid it might have been too easy. Miss Alma was looking over my shoulder the whole time I was passing them back and she was just shaking her head because it was just one A after another." Miss Alma was the more experienced-- and more conservative--teacher who taught religion to the upper classes.
"But isn't that a good thing?," I asked, "Doesn't that mean that you successfully communicated the material to the whole class, and that they all got it?"
"Well, I guess you could look at it that way," she answered, "But don't you think that if everybody does really well it means that the test was too easy?"
And here is the problem. If everyone does well on a test is that a good sign or a bad sign? Does it mean that the teacher succeeded in the two goals of effectively communicating and assessing the students' knowledge and understanding of the material? Or does it mean the assessment is flawed: "too easy"? What percentage of A's, B's C's D's and F's would indicate that the teacher was successful here? How many A's is too many? Is there a correct number of B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s as well?
A few years before, I had been working in a different school system. At the annual in-service meeting just before school opened for the year, there was a presentation about the new assessment system we were all to implement, effective immediately. The problem this new system was trying to solve was the problem of too many A's.
The new philosophy was: if a student does everything they're supposed to do, gets all their homework in on time, behaves, etc, that's an average student, and the average grade is a C. If the student really does well on tests and reports, and goes over and above expectations consistently, that student can get bumped up to a B. A's were to be reserved for those very rare cases when the student is truly exceptional, consistently goes way above and beyond what is required or requested or expected.
The real kicker for me was that even the "specials" teacher were supposed to implement this. We're talking Art, Music, PE, Computer. I was appalled. What on earth were we trying to tell these kids?
I couldn’t do it. My policy, which I articulate to my students at the beginning of each year, is that everyone walks into my classroom with an A because I naturally assume that each of them is a wonderful student who will do a wonderful job in my class. Why would I assume otherwise?
Fortunately for me, I discovered that no one really monitors or cares about what the “specials” teachers do, as long as the students are being occupied, the regular classroom teachers get their breaks, and the annual programs come off well, you can do and grade as you like in a music classroom, a luxury other teachers don’t have.

Part 2:
I went into school to return my keys after the school year was over. The people in the office were very happy to see me, as there was a problem: the grades were lost in the computer program and could not be found to register on the permanent record cards. Did I have a copy of my grades? I said, "No, they were all in the computer program, but if you want you can just give everyone the highest grade possible."
This caused a flurry of rapid, shocked responses. Had I seen the recent article on the "acceleration of grading"? --The percentage of A's has gone up. Had I seen the other article, discussing whether participation in class should even "count", proposing that all grading should reflect "achievement only"? I submitted that grades don't mean much, since a C from one teacher may be the equivalent of and A from another "Yes, well, that's always been true" one replied, "but, without grades how do you know what they've learned?"
To me this was like saying, "yes, I know my measuring tool completely inaccurate, but if I don't use it how will I be able to measure?"
I wonder, do we have some compulsive need to measure, to compare and rank individuals? Is this need so powerful that we insist on engaging in acts of measuring even when we know we’re not really measuring what we’d like to be able to measure? What then, is the purpose of grades, and are they ever valid? Do teachers and educational materials companies create tests so that the resulting class ranking chart fits onto an expected bell curve scale? If every student gets an A, should we doubt or praise the teacher or the materials or the assessment? Does such a system allow for us to ever believe that it’s possible for every student to succeeded?


A Detour into Validity
Before I go further, I want to take a short detour through the wonderful work on articulating validity that Trochim has done. Trochim is a guru of sort in research methods at Cornell University. He defines validity as “the best available approximation to the truth of a given proposition, inference, or conclusion” (2005). I believe that an understanding of validity is relevant to all educators who want to examine the integrity of their work.
Trochim holds that there are four types of validity: Conclusion, Internal, Construct and External. A critical principle is that these four types are cumulative, that is, without Conclusion validity, you can’t have the other three, and if, for example you have External validity, it means that by definition you already have for certain Conclusion, Internal, and Construct validity. Briefly, Conclusion validity means that you have concluded that there is a relationship between your variables. For example, if I can establish that tides are higher and lower during a full moon, I have established a relationship between variables and I have Conclusion validity. Internal validity means that not only is there a relationship, but it is causal. So, if I can prove that tides are higher and lower because of the full moon, I now have established a causal relationship and I have Internal validity. Construct validity asks if, given Internal validity and a causal relationship, do we have clear understanding of the causal relationship? If I can prove and understand that tides are higher and lower during a full moon because the alignment of the celestial bodies changes the pull on the Earth’s water, I have Construct validity. But, if I conclude that it is the increased light of the full moon which expands the volume of water in the ocean, causing a higher tide, I have a false understanding of the situation, and this conclusion would have no Construct validity.
In terms of a research study, Construct validity requires that I measured what I meant to measure, or tested for what I meant to test for. External validity, which can only can come into play if the previous three validities are present, means that you can responsibly generalize beyond your study to other people, places and times. So, in the case above, if I spend hours at home shining lights on bowls of water waiting for the amount of water to increase, I’ll be disappointed. Because I had no Construct validity, I will also lack External validity.
I introduce these concept here because, to my mind, the next theorist I discuss, von Glasersfeld, has mastered the art of pinpointing where and how traditional education is lacking in validity.

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