Assessment: the tail that wags the dog

chasing tail


All this talk about whether leaving cert results or aptitude tests are better for gaining information about a student’s ability to become a doctor reminds me of the story of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight.


A cop walking his beat one night finds a drunk on his knees, searching for something on the street. The cop asks the drunk, “What are you doing?” “Looking for my car keys,” says the drunk. The cop asks, “Where did you lose your keys?” “I don’t know,” the man answers. The cop, a bit perplexed, asks, “Then, why are you looking here if you don’t know where you lost your keys?” Responds the drunk, “Because the light is better here, under the streetlight.”


Why does our education have such a focus on assessment? Because that’s the only bit we can put a number on.

And we do love to put numbers on things.

The danger arises when this very dubious practice becomes ingrained in us to such an extent that all the stakeholders assume it is a ‘natural’ process.

Certainly students associate ‘points’ with intelligence, and identify ‘good’ teachers as those whose students get ‘A’s.

Of course there are very valid reasons for doing this; the point is that in so doing we are reinforcing the notion that this is right (and again that word ‘natural’).


Assessment then turns into the tail that wags the dog.


Look at the aims and objectives of any syllabus at senior or junior level – they are full of wonderful aspirations.

This particular one can be found at the beginning of every leaving cert subject syllabus:


The general aim of education is to contribute towards the development of all aspects of the individual, including aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, expressive, intellectual, for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community and for leisure.


I wonder how much time authors spend reading this when they set out to write their textbooks.


Palaeontologist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould looked at the origin of the I.Q. test in his wonderful book ‘The mismeasure of man’.

He used the term ‘reification’ to describe the fallacy of putting a number on something that couldn’t be quantified (in this case intelligence) and with this very simple process an incredible transformation takes place. Because the concept has now got a number everybody assumes that the concept must be measureable and therefore the concept must be valid.


Wasn’t it Margaret Mead who said that she was taking her daughter out of school so that she could get an education?



  1. School assessment is not the only example. Sports coaches teach that only the score matters, not the game. Adults measure career success by how much they make, not by how much good they do. Maybe a points-obsessed education system does its students a favour by teaching them the values of a cynical world.
    I’m more positive, though. It’s possible to smuggle plenty of education into the points-generating process. In the long term, maybe the Leeds supporter or the Kerry hurler gets more satisfaction out of his noble struggle than his success-bloated counterparts do.
    And, according to many authorities, notably Freeman, Margaret Mead fabricated her evidence.

  2. I imagine one could also make the point that the two different approaches are not compatible; there probably is quite a lot of overlap, and I also think that both approaches are much preferable to a third option whereby the teacher has no objective other than to just put in the hours.

    The bottom line for me is that teachersshould give some thought to what they are doing and be in a position to defend it, if only to themselves.

  3. Unfortunately, the Mismeasure of Man is more a work of propaganda than science. It is a popular book because it tells people what they want to hear, but it got seriously panned in specialist academic journals. Gould misrepresents the position of those he criticises and omits studies that contradict his argument.

    I’d recommend Nevan Sesardic or John Carroll’s articles below. Also, see Ian Deary’s recent paper in Nature for an up to date take on psychometrics and intelligence.

    Philosophy of Science that Ignores Science: Race, IQ and Heritability, Philosophy of Science 67 (2000), pp.580-602.

    Click to access getfile.php

    Also, see John Carroll’s review in relation to factor analysis, or David Bartholomew’s Measuring Intelligence: Facts and Fallacies.

    The neuroscience of human intelligence differences

    IJ Deary, L Penke, W Johnson – Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2010 –

    Click to access Deary_Penke_Johnson_2010_-_Neuroscience_of_intelligence_review.pdf

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