Saturday, October 10, 2009

Evidence and values, ctd.

I recently read an astounding assertion by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. Defending the pervasive use of standardized testing in the schools, Hirsch wrote this:

Ample research shows that scores on fill-in-the-bubble reading tests are the most reliable predictors of Americans' future economic status and ability to become effective citizens.

I sure would like to see the empirical model that enables researchers to measure effective citizenship. Hasn't Hirsch fallen into exactly the problem I discussed here?

To be fair, Hirsch probably means that you can't be an effective citizen if you can't read well. But what if effective citizenship hinges on other qualities too? What if the schools conclude (as they seem to have concluded) that they can't maximize reading scores without taking an increasingly authoritarian approach to school discipline, and without putting special emphasis on passive compliance and obedience? Is that what makes a good citizen? Doesn't your answer depend on your values?

Life would certainly be easier if research and evidence could tell us what our values should be. But value judgments are not testable. Evidence can help shed light on the consequences of different choices, but it can't tell you whether to like or dislike those consequences. When competing values are at stake -- which is almost always -- the discussion inevitably has to move beyond evidence to the question of what kind of people we want to be.

..How can I comment?