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The Numbers Don’t Add Up

It seems like every time I turn around these days, I am asked to complete a quantitative assessment of something. We are just finishing one at Gutenberg College as part of our annual report to our accrediting agency. We were asked to assess not only student success in classes, but also a number of other attributes—from facilities to the adequacy of our lab equipment. I do not like completing quantitative assessments, but that is not the substance of my complaint.

The proponents of quantitative assessment believe that applying this method to virtually any aspect of life results in more objective and certain evaluation than is obtained by other means, such as qualitative judgment. Said another way, quantitative assessment is “scientific.”

Indeed, a standard criticism of quantitative assessment is that it would be even more objective and certain if only the social and political biases of the assessors could be eliminated. I will give away my age here, but a clear example of this occurred during Olympic events during the Cold War. You could depend on the Russian and East German judges to be biased in their scoring. At least, that is  what we in the West thought. (I suspect that the Russians and East Germans had similar thoughts about us).

But this criticism of quantitative assessment is not my criticism. Behind the view that the Russian judge was biased was the belief that if the bias of the Russian judge could be removed, then the quantitative scoring would be objective and certain. It is this premise, that potentially quantitative assessment is more certain and objective than personal judgment, that I take issue with. I reject the whole notion that quantitative assessment is superior to qualitative judgment. Consider the following example.

In medicine, when you are sick you go to a medical doctor who uses his skill to determine what is wrong with you. He developed this skill over years in medical school and honed it with years of experience. These skills cannot be reduced to a quantitative assessment.  If these skills could be replaced by a quantitative assessment, then it should be possible to replace medical doctors with untrained (at least medically) personnel who by following a quantitative method determine a diagnosis for a patient. To be consistent with their premise, the proponents of quantitative assessment should argue that untrained medical personnel, following a quantitative method, can give more objective and more certain diagnoses than medical doctors. That is the basic premise behind quantitative assessment. If the proponents are right, think of how much money we could save on medical costs!

However, if I am right about this, quantitative assessment is a flawed way of assessing any skill. I would argue that becoming educated and gaining knowledge entails becoming proficient at a number of skills including reading, learning a language, and speaking, to name a few. In education, improving skills is the heart of the mission. It appears to me that quantitative assessment is a deeply flawed way of assessing education or virtually any other important aspect  of life.

Now back to my assessments.

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