05
Jan
12

One Score’s Tyranny

But Joe’s mother was adamant. “You see his Stanford scores from last year!” she  told me. “He’ll be 13 soon and if we can’t get that score up, he’ll never get in a good upper school,” she added, explaining to me the gravity of the situation. “You see, he got a 36th percentile on the Auditory Comprehension. Something’s wrong. Why’d he get that score? We have to find out and then get him some help to boost it up!”

“Do Joe’s teachers complain about his attention or comprehension in class?” I asked.

“Not at all. THEY were as shocked by this score as I was,” she responded. “We’ve never thought there was a problem. But I’m at least glad it’s been discovered and it’s not too late!”

“But if none of his previous test scores were like this and neither you nor his teachers have felt that he had a problem and my own test scores demonstrate above-average auditory and language functions, it may well be that the test score is wrong.”

“You don’t understand!! That score says he DOES have a problem and we have to find out what it is. It’s his future, don’t you see!?” Now she was leaning over the desk top, her finger pointing alternately at me and the score, her eyes ablaze, mixing anger and fear and impatience.

“OK.” I said. “Do you know what auditory comprehension is? What the words mean? Truth be told, I have no idea what it means. That score COULD be a measurement of poorer phonological processing,  limited attention span,  poor verbal memory,  confusion as to the grammar/syntax of utterances, impeded response-formulation  functions, anxiety or distractibility. But it could also reflect errors in the test administration, something that can happen frequently enough in group testing circumstances. Or it could reflect poor test construction. Or inappropriate test norming. And then again it could be Joe had a head cold.”

“The problem is that without knowing exactly WHAT the test items were, HOW they were administered  and under WHAT conditions, we can’t make sense of the score. But even if we did know, we still have NO IDEA what the test makers mean by “auditory comprehension”.  I certainly don’t know what they mean!”

And then I asked, “Do you?”

She glared at me again. Then she softened a bit. “I guess we should find out…Then: ” But something is really wrong with Joe!”

For despite overwhelming, tangible evidence that we did NOT know what the test was measuring, despite the fact that all background and observational facts convincingly demonstrated the opposite of some language processing problem: efficient language, attention and phonological sophistication, despite the fact that neither of us knew what the test items were like nor HOW the test was administered, despite uncertainty as to test conditions…despite all these facts that all but eliminated ANY interpretation of the test score, that score had been seared into his mother’s mind and heart. It – and only it – held the TRUTH.

In future posts, I hope to dethrone the tyrants of testing, and replace them with sensible, useful and dependable ways to understand – and interpret, criticize and evaluate – tests and test scores.

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