Laine Bradshaw, University of Georgia

What metaphor do you use to describe learning? What role does psychometrics play in building your narrative around this metaphor? In the United States, the dominant discourse on student learning relies on a pervasive metaphor. We use the metaphor of learning as travel in a physical space along a straight path, where moving “forward” and being “ahead” is good progress and staying “back” or being left “behind” is bad (Parks, 2010). The metaphor is so common, we can almost forget we are speaking metaphorically when we describe students using this language.

A number of years back, I listened as a researcher discussed her observations that classroom teachers nearly completely rely on the use of this metaphor to describe their students’ understandings, instead of using content- or concept-specific language to describe what they understand. My immediate observation was that the psychometric modeling framework ubiquitously used in large-scale testing in education is in sync with this narrative.

It made me wonder: Do unidimensional assessments that locate an overall student ability on a line reinforce this narrative? Or is that what is prompting this narrative? Or is it a little bit of both? I still don’t know. But I am working with a team of educators in local school districts to create a through-year, formative assessment system based on diagnostic classification models (DCMs), and I am eager to see how teachers’—and administrators’ and students’—conversations around students’ understandings and progress may change when the multidimensional diagnostic assessment results are readily available to them.

My hope is that the DCM-based design will encourage more of a “toolbox” (Parks, 2010) metaphor to represent student learning, where students develop differently from each other but those differences need not be ordered for comparison. Using this approach, I hope the discourse prompted by the assessments is centered on celebrating the acquisition of shiny new tools and setting clear goals to acquire specific tools they still need. I’m interested to hear from your experiences and about your ideas around the roles that assessments and psychometrics have played to shape discourse about student learning in the classrooms and schools where you have worked. Any other metaphors we should be thinking about? I discuss this topic, and provide an introduction to DCMs, in my chapter in the new Handbook on Cognition and Assessment. You can check it out here:

Bradshaw, L. (2016). Diagnostic classification models. In A. A. Rupp & J. P. Leighton (Eds.), The handbook of cognition and assessment: Frameworks, methodologies, and applications (pp. 297-327). Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.