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Curriculum-based assessment and direct instruction: critical reflections on fundamental assumptions.

ABSTRACT: This article critiques the fundamental assumptions about what counts as knowledge and how knowledge is claimed that underlie Curriculum-Based Assessment (CBA) and Direct Instruction (DI). The central conclusion is that CBA/DI reflects not a model of assessment and instruction for human learning, but an isolated set of measurement and control procedures that are superimposed on but are unrelated to the human phenomena they claim to assess. Histolic understandings of assessment that directly emerge from the characteristically human aspects of learning and teaching and from contemporary understandings of the construction of knowledge are advocated instead.

For four wicked centuries the world has dreamed this foolish dream of efficiency, and the end is not yet.

George Bernard Shaw

in Courtney (1982, p. 68)

A perusal of special education literature of the last 5 years readily shows the popularity of curriculum-based assessment (CBA) and direct instruction (DI). CBA offers a set of measurement and control procedures for both assessment and instruction: Assessment outcomes are immediate indicators of what needs to be taught next. As Tucker (1985) stated: "CBA is the ultimate in 'teaching the test... (p. 199). DI "teaches the test" with even greater exactness by adding precise sequences of specific content components; explicit, scripted instructional steps to teach each component; and precise feedback procedures to deal with student errors.

The CBA literature typically has prescribed the following steps:

* List skills presented in the curriculum materials in logical order.

* Write objectives for each skill in behavioral terms so that correct responses to controlled tasks can be counted.

* Construct test items.

* Set level of mastery desired.

* Assess before instruction for level of mastery.

* Conduct instructional intervention.

* Count specified objectives (advice varies from frequently, to at least twice a week, to daily, if possible).

* Analyze performance trends to judge adequacy of intervention (for specific listings of steps see, e.g., Blankenship, 1985; Deno, 1987; Fuchs, Hamlett, Fuchs, Stecker, & Ferguson, 1988; Idol & Ritter, 1987).

Other labels have been used to refer to essentially the same constructs and procedures. Bursuck and Lessen (1987), for example, used the terms curriculum-based assessment and instructional design. idol and Ritter (1987) and Jones and Krouse (1988) used the term data-based instruction (DBI). Deno (1987), Fuchs et al. (1988), and Wesson, Fuchs, Tindal, Mirkin, and Deno (1986) used curriculum-based measurement. Fuchs, Deno, and Mirkin (1984) used the label data-based program modification, and Deno and Fuchs (1987) used the term curriculum-based progress monitoring.

At the level of methodology, CBA and DI are compatible, but differ in detail. DI can be seen as complementing CBA by adding actual prescriptive content. At the level of fundamental assumptions, however, they share the same ontological and epistemological beliefs about what can count as valid knowledge (and by implication what cannot) and how one is (or is not) allowed to claim such knowledge. The purpose of this article is to discuss these fundamental assumptions and to render a critical analysis of them.


The measurement and control procedures of CBA/DI are wide ranging. First, these techniques offer a framework for teacher preparation. Idol and Ritter (1987) concluded their description of a teacher training program on DBI as follows: "A majority (of teachers) may consider DBI to be the single most important skill learned in the course of their preparation" (p. 69). A survey of the methodological content of teacher training programs in learning disabilities (Pugach & Whitten, 1987) showed that up to 69% of the programs surveyed fell into the related categories of CBA, DI, and DBI.

Second, CBA offers a set of procedures to use for student referral for special education services (Blankenship, 1985, p. 238). Third, CBA/DI provide the methodology for research to show that a certain program "works" (to name a few studies and overviews of research, see, e.g., Bursuck & Lessen, 1987; Fuchs et al., 1984; Gersten, Carnine, & Woodward, 1987; Jones & Krause, 1988; Moore, 1986; Peterson, Heistad, Peterson, & Reynolds, 1985).

Finally, it has been proposed that school psychologists master CBA as a way to save school psychology from sliding into the background-particularly in the light of the Regular Education Initiative and the resultant lessening of the relevance of testing (see Reschly, 1988).

The CBA/DI literature portrays its constructs and procedures as near-scientific tools to solve many of our assessment, instruction, student referral, and research problems. These tools are claimed to be among the more important aspects of teacher (and now also school psychologist) training. Is this so?

This article presents an argument against these claims. The argument analyzes the fundamental assumptions of these movements, assumptions that give rise-not to a model of assessment and instruction for human learning-but to a set of isolated measurement and control procedures. The argument is that, in the name of a positivist and mechanistic construction of science, these measurement and control procedures are superimposed on but are unrelated to the nature of the phenomena they claim to assess. This forced imposition distorts what human learning and teaching is about.

This analysis examines the mechanistic grounding of CBA/DI and is developed as follows: (a) definition of terms, (b) measurement as foundation, (c) context out of context, (d) control as knowing, (e) scientism as science, and f) the reconstruction of assessment.


Definitions and characteristics of CBA/DI may be best presented through the words of CBA/DI proponents. Blankenship (1985) described CBA as "placing students into curriculum materials" (p. 233) and as "the practice of obtaining direct and frequent measures of a student's performance on a series of sequentially arranged objectives derived from the curriculum used in the classroom" (p. 234). Bigge (1988) defined CBA as "a course of study that is specified, measurable, and supported by a system of ongoing measurement of student progress in terms of expected outcomes"; Bigge further stated that "the availability of a printed curriculum with clearly identified materials and student assignments is imperative to this assessment approach" (p. 55). Deno (1987) said that CBA "consists of a simple set of standardized procedures" (p. 41). Earlier, Deno (1985) claimed that CBA is "so simple to administer that it is possible for teachers to obtain a normative perspective on student performance by sampling regular classroom peers" (p. 228). Idol and Ritter (1987; see also Wesson et al., 1986) stated that CBA procedures can be "successfully taught ... in a relatively brief amount of time" (p. 28).

To Gickling and Thompson (1985), CBA "functions as a sorting device selectively discriminating between students who succeed and those who fail. [It enables one] to label or identify who belongs to the penthouse, inhouse, and outhouse based upon teachers' grouping patterns of the so called high, average, and slow learners" (p.208). Tucker (1985) stated: "measuring the level of achievement in terms of expected curricular outcomes; this can happen only when expected curricular outcomes are known and measurable" (p. 199). This author went on to state: "Curriculum-Based Assessment is the ultimate in 'teaching the test,' because the materials used to assess progress are always drawn directly from the course of study" (p. 200, emphasis in original).

To paraphrase DI proponents, DI is a precise analysis of cognitive learning skills. DI is based on (a) an analysis of behavior to explain how the environment shapes learning, (b) an analysis of knowledge into logically organized components, and (c) an analysis of how these components are effectively transmitted to the student through a precise, logical presentation formula. The learner is only required to respond to the logic of the presentation (Englemann & Carnine, 1982, pp. 1-3; Moore, 1986, p. 203; see also Gersten et al., 1986, 1987).

It must be noted that some scholars define DI in somewhat broader, though not different, terms. Gersten et al. (1986, 1987) for example, listed as additional features of DI the gradual fading from teacher-directed activities toward independent work; the use of adequate, systematic practice with a range of examples; and the cumulative review of newly learned concepts. Gersten et al. (1987, p. 55) also briefly acknowledged that in cognitively complex areas" (such as "critical reading" and "concepts in chemistry," where research findings are more "tentative") instruction is "somewhat more open ended" and that more than one appropriate response is possible. However, the fundamental assumptions underlying DI in these publications are the same as those in CBA/DI publications viewed here.

Regarding the ontological and epistemological foundation of CBA/DI, the following interrelated assumptions can be deduced:

1 .Measurement-that is, assigning numbers to things and to relations between things-is the pillar of all actions and decision-making processes; "to observe," "to know," and "to document effectiveness" are equated with "to measure" in the form of counting correct responses to controlled tasks. Data obtained through this particular conception of measurement constitute objective data and are the only kind that are allowed as evidence in making formal knowledge claims.

2. To come up with measurable units, a component conception of what is real is imperative. The whole has to be reduced into parts to which, in turn, a status of an independent reality is attributed. It is then assumed that these parts can be added up to recapture the whole.

3. Growth and change are seen as linear additive, and externally controlled processes.

4. To claim knowledge about progress, these processes are to be measured against an externally constructed and externally controlled set of standards.

5. Criteria for both problem selection and evaluation are derived from such externally controlled sets of standards.

6. All of these assumptions are not only possible, but are necessary to be scientific and to render valid knowledge claims.

These fundamental assumptions parallel those of the mechanistic, Newtonian paradigm that has dominated Western thought for the last four centuries. The mechanistic/Newtonian construction of reality has been challenged by Einstein, and has been further shown to be fundamentally incorrect by Bohr, Heisenberg, Bohm, and other contemporary scientists and philosophers of science.

However, its dictates of 400 years have continued to exert influence in many spheres of life (see Berman, 1984; Bohm, 1980; Bohm & Peat, 1987; Bordo, 1987; Briggs & Peat, 1984; Capra, 1982; Cousins, 1985; Hesse, 1980; LeShan & Margenau, 1982; Wolf, 1981; and in the fields of general and special education see Doll, 1986a, 1986b; Iano, 1986; 1987; Heshusius, 1982, 1986, 1989; Lincoln, 1989; Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Poplin, 1988a; Sawada & Caley, 1985; Skrtic, 1986; Valle, 1981). All further reference to both mechanistic/Newtonian thought and contemporary philosophy of science is based on these references.


Before the 17th century, to measure meant to grasp the inner proportions and the essences of something. With the rise of 17th-century science, measurement became comparison with an outside standard only, and acquired the meaning of assigning numbers to things and to relations between things. To count and to rank became not just one way of knowing, it became the only way to know. As Smith (1987) pointed out, to argue against knowledge obtained by measurement procedures, given that the procedures are adequately applied, is to invite the accusation of being irrational. Within CBA/DI one starts with a mindset made up of measuring demands and then formulates what needs to be learned to fit into these demands. Tucker (1985) stated: "Measuring achievement can happen only when expected curriculum outcomes are measurable" (p. 199). This closed system of circular reasoning starts and ends with measuring demands.

To look for learning characteristics and their frequencies-in both the processes and the outcomes of worthwhile instructional activities-as one aspect of evaluating learning outcomes is not a problem. Within CBA/DI, however, one determines desired learning outcomes a priori so that they can be atomized, sequentialized, and quantified by the adult mindset to report, presumably, valid knowledge claims. Thus, exactly what is called "learning outcomes" is not a function of personal or social processes of meaning construction, but is determined by the measurer's conception of what is measurable. Instruction and assessment come to be equated with control over measurable performance. Measurement-driven conceptions of assessment then provide answers before they ask questions. And "set answers inevitably involve fitting children into schemes, not responding to individuals" (Wood & Shears, 1986, p. 103).

Any model of assessment constitutes a relationship. But it should be a relationship with a real learner doing worthwhile things, not one that relates students to an atomized, often one-size-fits-all curriculum, in which the will of measurement and the idea of control shapes the form and sequence of instruction, assessment, and learning outcomes. Wood and Shears 1986), in their penetrating critique of the measured curriculum, stated that in this curriculum, the child is to perform pieces of behaviors in order for the teacher to say, through the use of counting procedures, that a component has been mastered. Wood and Shears' critique is of particular interest because the authors are also full-time teachers of children with severe learning disabilities. They have argued that the teacher-student relationship within the measured curriculum is dominated by relations of imposition, in which the children are required to learn in a prescribed way, without regard to their own views, thereby narrowing their options to such an extent that they have no alternative to compliance: "In our view, teaching as imposition does not represent education" (p. 60). They further noted (pp. 67-72) the following as major characteristics of measurement-driven curricula: grossly unequal power relations; devaluation of children by ignoring their goals and their point of view and by treating them purely as potential performers on some controlled task while ignoring their more general human status as rational, emotional, meaningful, creative beings; and conformity to a normative and idealized model of behavior. What Wood and Shears called "the new orthodox curriculum" (p. 3) indeed gives rise to the same deficit, normative conception of learning as does standardized testing. Both approaches to assessment set up fixed categories of success and failure before children even come to the task.

Within CBA/DI, measurement procedures are considered as tools only. The validity of the measurement function presumably does not depend on any connection to what it measures or to who does the measuring. For example, the nature of the curriculum, the degree to which the learner has ownership over what will be learned, or the worthiness of the curriculum from the students' perspectives are not measurement issues. This is not to say that proponents of CBA/DI do not consider the nature and worth of the curriculum or students' perspectives of it (although the literature reviewed here shows precious little of such considerations), but that such considerations are seen as independent of and separate from the act of measurement. As Kelly (1989, p. 63) noted, this view requires us to accept that human behavior can be explored, analyzed, and explained in the same way as the behavior of inanimate objects; that it can be studied by methods similar to those used by the physical scientists; and that it can be explained in terms of causes rather than purpose.


"Naturally, there is a concerted effort to make every task as contextual as possible" (Gickling & Havertape, quoted in Gickling & Thompson, 1985, p. 212). Within the CBA/DI references reviewed, this seems to be the only reference to the notion of context. Even this reference, however, was extremely brief (only in the noted quotation) and inconsequential. There was no indication here (or elsewhere in the literature) of how attention to context can be accomplished within the tightly controlled assessment and instructional procedures. It becomes very difficult, therefore, to follow what Galagan (1985, p. 298) meant when he stated that CBA measures are "child directed entailing a genuine individual focus" or what Tucker (1985, p. 202) meant when he referred to CBA's ability to adjust the instructional program to the needs of the student.

The personal needs of individual students have little or no place in the CBA/DI literature (unless meeting students' needs means that different children can progress at different rates through the prestipulated series of steps to be mastered-a restricted interpretation of "individualization" that pervades the CBA/DI literature). Rather, to be both child directed and to adhere to the basic CBA/DI constructs, procedures, and fundamental ontological assumptions do not constitute mutually sustaining or mutually compatible goals. Indeed, Moore (1986), in his promotion of DI, stated: "Individual differences are seen as irrelevant to the design of instruction. Learning outcomes are not determined by constructs such as developmental stage, but by the features of the knowledge communicated to the learner" (p. 209). Engelmann and Carnine's (1982) work reflects the same position. Gickling and Thompson (1985) described the "inflexible print" as a major characteristic of CBA, a print that places "the same demand on all students regardless of the individual student's deficiencies or capabilities ...

The pressure becomes one of adapting children to the curriculum instead of vice-versa" (p. 208). Gersten et al. (1986, pp. 19, 20) described step-by-step instructional procedures and argued that materials should be designed with such precision that teachers will not interpret them differently; furthermore, they stated that student-generated ideas are to be avoided because they may introduce ambiguity. To Gickling and Thompson (1985) tight, external control is essential: "The impact of curriculum materials needs to be harnessed. . . teaching could be more objective if instructors would concentrate on the product of effective teaching more than the process, or at least use the model as a gauge to control the process" (pp. 207, 210).

The question begs itself: How can proponents of CBA/DI speak naturally of contextualization and of a "genuine individual focus" (Galagan, 1985) when so many researchers emphasize "teaching the test" within a "harnessed curriculum"? The literature prescribes clearly identified and inflexible printed curriculum materials containing predetermined student assignments and sequentialized tasks with known outcomes. Moreover, as previously discussed, teachers are told that individual differences are irrelevant to the design of instruction and that their task is to adapt children to the curriculum. To CBA/DI proponents, the product to be measured is more important than the process and should be in control of the process.

One might argue that the CBA/DI literature reviewed here manifests rigid interpretations of CBA/DI, but that it does not have to be that way. The crucial point, however, is that such rigid interpretations are not just shortcomings of practice, but are directly fostered by CBA/DI constructs and procedures and, more specifically still, by their underlying ontological/epistemological assumptions. This is so because (a) there is nothing inherent in CBA/DI constructs, procedures, and underlying assumptions to prevent rigid, narrow interpretations that ignore meaning and context; and (b) there is nothing inherent in these constructs, procedures, and fundamental assumptions that focuses attention on personal and social meanings and contexts. In fact, our attention is solidly focused elsewhere. The problem thus lies both in what CBA/DI constructs and procedures direct our attention to (concepts such as atomizing and sequentializing the whole into small parts, mastery of skills, measurement, external control) and in what it does not direct our attention to (concepts such as learning the personal and social construction of meaning by the learner and the direct importance of context).

The practitioner, of course, may try to add personal relevance and context to CBA/DI. To try to do so, however, leads to difficulties and contradictions: CBA/DI procedures are ontologically and epistemologically situated outside of personal relevance and context. I believe Gickling and Thompson's statement about the "concerted effort to make every task as contextual as possible" is an apology for the fact that there is nothing natural about contextualization within CBA/DI. Their statement implies not only that teaching can occur outside of context, but also that personal meaning and contexts for students are neither fundamental nor necessary considerations in CBA/DI. Thus, it takes a concerted effort to add meaning-but to do so may not always be possible in the first place.

Alternative conceptions of instruction and assessment begin with relevant learning activities, whereas the CBA/DI movement starts with skills to be mastered, which then, at some future point, may be applied to situations of real-life purpose and relevance. As I heard someone say not too long ago, the purpose of our instruction under these models is "a secret that only the teacher knows." The deeper belief is that one cannot learn for real purposes until a set of prerequisite, sequentialized components has been mastered. These components have been arrived at by the adult, rational mind, which, under mechanistic thought, has gained great expertise in taking apart and reducing knowledge from a detached perspective. These components are then called "skills," and an independent reality is attributed to them: that is, these parts then appear to have an independent reality. The appearance of an independent reality of parts allows the proponents of mechanistic thought to make the idea of order linear and additive so that external control seems possible (see, particularly, Bohm, 1980, Chapter 1; Bohm & Peat, 1987; Briggs & Peat, 1984).

Mastering skills is thus seen as separate from and prior to involvement in learning for intrinsically relevant purposes: These purposes do of course exist ... but not yet. This view hinges on the belief in the separation of cognitive knowing from affect and context, the separation of fact from value, the separation of the knower from the known, and in the belief that the whole is not more than the sum of components (arrived at by reducing the whole) linearly and sequentially arranged. None of these beliefs represents the nature of reality and the nature of knowing, according to contemporary philosophy of science and the sociology of knowledge. The alternative constructs of instruction and assessment, grounded in educational theories and theories of literacy acquisition that are informed by holistic ontological and epistemological assumptions "travel with a different view" to borrow Kelly's (1989, p. 66) words: "What is required is not feverish preparation for something that lies ahead, but to work with precision, passion and taste at worthwhile things that lie at hand."

The point then is that context and meaning (which equals the relationship of a "part" to its whole context, because a "part" is really not an independent entity and cannot exist outside of the context in which it appears a part) cannot be "postponed." We are not free to add or take context and meaning away so we can first attend to the presumably more important task of exerting external control over teaching and learning processes. Context is not under our control. Children are, always, contextualized and contextualizing beings. And indeed so are we. The deeper problem with the CBA/DI movement is that its proponents fail to see both that learning is by definition contextual and cannot be otherwise, and the fact that CBA/DI itself is neither objective nor neutral, but is likewise contextual. CBA/DI has emerged from the context in which measurement and external control procedures are seen as imperative to bring about knowledge claims. Such is not a neutral or objective stance, but one that squarely rests within the context of a mechanistic worldview.

To be child directed, any set of constructs and procedures for instruction and assessment should directly emerge and be inextricably connected with the most adequate educational theories available of literacy acquisition, child development, and interactive learning processes. It should emerge from an understanding of how children perceive and construct their world on their terms, and from knowledge of how social and cultural processes shape the very ways a person constructs knowledge. CBA/DI constructs, procedures, and fundamental assumptions emerge from no such grounds. CBA's only reference to substance regards the locally prescribed curriculum-a curriculum that in fact could be good or poor, boring or engaging, racist or sexist, outdated or updated. Each of these characterizations (and others) applies to many curricula prescribed for schools, including curricula used in DI. The point here is that the specific nature of the curriculum strongly influences the very ability of each child to learn that curriculum. (Elsewhere [Heshusius, 1989], I have provided overviews of research in support of this position.) Therefore, attention to the nature of the curriculum should be central to any model of assessment and to any assessment process used to indicate what shall be taught next.


Like Mother Nature, the impact of curriculum materials needs to be harnessed ... if academic success is to be achieved.

(Gickling & Thompson, 1985, pp. 205, 207)

It is Nature herself who is to be the bride, who requires taming, shaping, and subduing by the scientific mind . . . . The secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexation of art (meaning practical, mechanical rules) than in its natural freedom.

( Francis Bacon, in Keller, 1985, p. 36)

To show the relationship between the role of the environment and the learner, we are faced with the basic problem of experimental control. We must control one of these variables (the environment or the learner) before we can make precise observations about the other variable. Ideally, we would rule out or eliminate one of these variables (either the environment or the learner) and observe the remaining variable in a pure state.

(Engelmann & Carnine, 1982, p. 3)

The development of the 17th-century mechanistic/Newtonian paradigm led to the emergence of a new value: The idea of control. The idea of control is not the same as the exercise of control. Whereas animals, children, and adults exercise control when carrying out many of the natural functions in life, the abstraction of control means that control for the sake of control is deemed necessary to make knowledge claims. Control itself comes to be seen as more important than the nature and content of what the control actually controls (see particularly Berman, 1984; Bohm & Peat, 1987, pp. 207, 208; Bordo, 1987; French, 1985, p. 68; Keller, 1985).

In the 17th century's mechanistic universe, all things were seen as isolated and separate. Descartes decided that matter was inert and passive, that bodies remained in their given state unless acted upon. Newton posited an external set of forces. What linked the isolated, inert, and passive parts together was the control of one force over another. Indeed, the Newtonian view came to hold that only by exercising external control over something can one claim knowledge at all. Bacon, following Descartes and Newton, further solidified a course of science that holds as its main goal the attempt to dominate, to have power over, to have under external, efficient control. As Keller (1985, p. 31) noted, Francis Bacon is best known for his celebration of the equation between knowledge and having power over. Domination and external control came to be posited as basic to all scientific impulse.

It is not farfetched to argue that measurement-driven assessment and instruction models mirror the Newtonian/Baconian particular construction of reality and of knowing. Several educators have done so explicitly (see e.g., Doll, 1986a, 1986b; Heshusius, 1989; Iano, 1986, 1987; Sawada & Caley, 1985). CBA, and particularly DI proponents, take as their most fundamental priority the design of assessment and instructional processes in such a way, they think, that control over every aspect of the learning process becomes possible and that the curriculum resembles the stable state of the Newtonian universe, as linear and orderly as possible. Valencia and Pearson (1988, p. 29) likewise argued that the CBA movement is seductively simple and constitutes "an artificial neatening."

For proponents of CBA/DI, external control procedures are thought to be critical for correct student learning to come into existence. In terms of procedures and fundamental epistemological assumptions, I can draw no other conclusion. Gickling and Thompson's (1985) quote at the beginning of this section represents the CBA argument that without controlling the curriculum (any curriculum), valid, demonstrable academic success cannot occur. Other proponents have discussed the need to control stimuli: "If something is not possible either through 'induction' or deduction,' we will consider it impossible and will further assume that a learner could not learn it" (Engelman & Carnine, 1982, p. 366).

The clear implication is that learners cannot and should not be trusted to decide on the conditions and the goals of learning, nor should their teachers. Without external control, whatever they did could not be systematically measured; therefore, academic success could not be validly indicated. This lack of trust in teachers and learners is the other side of the idea of control (not of the need to exercise control where needed).

The impetus for this article occurred to me as follows: When reading the CBA/DI literature, I suddenly realized that one could replace the word student" or "child" with chimpanzee," "pigeon," or "rat" (in laboratory settings) and none of the procedures and ontological or epistemological assumptions would have to change. This is not to say that proponents of CBA/DI see children as laboratory animals, but that they fail to see that organisms that function at different levels of complexity and belong to different species must not be confused with each other. After all, no one would suggest the inverse relationship: No one would think of giving a rat or a pigeon a miscue analysis, or engage it in process writing and collect its work in a portfolio for assessment purposes. Instruction and assessment constructs, procedures, and underlying assumptions should be inextricably linked to essential and unique characteristics of the organism for whom they are developed, in this case for human beings. Different levels of complexity, consciousness, and intentionality make a difference in how we can know about them, and how we can evaluate their growth.

Reading the CBA/DI literature, I was struck by the perpetual use of a certain vocabulary: measurement, control, efficiency, programming, simple, quickly, components, task analysis, mastery, objective, data, graph. At the same time, words such as teaching, learning, success, and curriculum seemed desperately empty.

Moreover, I was struck by the absence of another vocabulary that fills the literature on child development and many theories of teaching and learning. This is a vast field, encompassing theories of literacy acquisition; theories of motivation; phenomenological pedagogy; holistic and interactional theories of curriculum; theories of dynamic, interactive, and holistic assessment; theories of social constructivism; and theories of empowerment. This literature uses terms such as education, personal purposes, holistic context, pedagogy, personal and social meaning, interaction, reciprocity, the student's perspective, the child's interests, intrisic motivation, the role of novelty, the role of unpredictability, indeterminism, zones of uncertainty, zones of proximal development, imminent activity, initiative, ownership over problem formation, self-organization, self-regulation, reflexivity, reflectivity, history, culture, and identity. These words and phrases reflect aspects of the teaching-learning process that are seen by these theories as crucial determiners of learning outcomes. But none of these are reflected in the CBA/DI movement. As French (1985, p. 69) so pointedly stated: "To revere control over anything else is to sacrifice everything else to control."

The greatest threat to CBA/DI is a morality in which something matters more than the idea of control. When concepts such as imminent activity, self-regulation and culture start to matter as determiners of the very ability of children to learn, the control and measurement procedures of CBA/DI show their emptiness.


The discussion so far bas addressed some basic assumptions most explicitly stated in the CBA/DI literature: atomization of wholes, quantification as knowing, and the idea of control. Other major values of the mechanistic paradigm, such as the belief in the possibility of objectivity, prediction, and certainty, are embedded in these assumptions and are also expressed throughout the CBA/DI literature. Collectively, these assumptions constitute the traditional, mechanistically informed definition of what it means to be scientific. Deno (1985), for example, described how brief samples of student performance produce data that can be graphed and how the slope of the data can be computed to estimate students' rate of progress on similar tasks. Deno stated that this statistic procedure "makes it possible to move instruction into the arena of applied science" (p. 228). Deno further stated: "Sciences begin with measurement. Most measurement begins with controlled observation" (p. 230).

Contemporary thought would not agree. Deno's statements illustrate a mechanistic and positivist construction of what it means to be scientific. In many current post-positivist debates, this construction has been challenged and found wanting. For example, science is seen by Gould (1981) as "a social phenomenon, a gutsy human enterprise, not the work of robots programmed to collect pure information ... Science, since people must do it, is a social embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition" (pp. 21-22). The positivist construction of what it means to be scientific distorts the way science is actually practiced. To Bronowski (1965), science is "not a mechanism" (or a tool, as Deno's statements suggest) "but a human process [with] independence of observation and of thought; ... "there are, oddly, no technical rules for success in science" (pp. 62, 63). To Bohm and Peat (1987), "It's arbitrary to forever limit science to what it has become today. After all, this was the result of a historical process that involved many fortuitous elements" (p. 14). They stated that we have clearly passed a point of no return: "We have to pause and consider the possibility of a fundamental and extensive change in what science means to us" (p. 13). in answering the question, What is science? Prigogine and Stenger (1984) stated that the positivist construction of science reduces science to a symbolic calculus, or "separates science from reality" (p. 98).

The CBA/DI literature, I would submit, reflects this separation of science from reality. Its constructs, procedures, and fundamental assumptions reflect the "a-meaning" syndrome Koch (1981) described so vividly. They reflect the characteristics of what Medawar (in Evans & Waites, 1981, p. 179) called an "unnatural science," whose "practitioners try most painstakingly to imitate what they believe-quite wrongly, alas for them-to be the distinctive manners and observances of the natural sciences." Among these characteristics, Medawar noted beliefs that, among others, also inform the CBA/DI movement: the belief that measurement and numeration are intrinsically praiseworthy activities, the belief that facts are prior to ideas, and the belief in the efficacy of statistical formulae. They reflect what von Bertalanffy (1968) characterized as scientism": "the intrusion of scientific (or rather pseudo scientific) ways of thinking into fields of human experience where they do not belong" (p. 114).

The quintessential characteristic of the Cartesian dream of detachment through expression of mathematical relationships is approximated in frequent graphing of student performance on prestipulated, tightly controlled tasks. Displays of graphs are characteristic of CBA/DI literature and research and are an essential component. Tindal (1987) and Marston (1988) have shown how graphing can be done in various ways. Deno (1985) described graphing as follows:

The clarity and simplicity of the image is what is important to underscore here. Because the data reflects student performance in the school's reading curriculum and the count of correctly read words is easily depicted and understood by teachers, parents, students, and others, judgments about whether or not a student is benefitting from instruction can easily be made by those responsible for making such decisions. Simplicity of data is a virtue when the flow of communication involves parties of widely varying background and experience. (p. 225, emphasis added)

To graph then assures detached, objective evidence based solely on measurement. It is void of theoretical basis and is presented as truly representing the learning it purports to assess. The graph does away with the ambiguity of interacting with parents and students from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds, who may have different constructions of what constitutes literacy, learning, and schooling and may have a different vision of what constitutes an educated person. The graph seems to be thought of as the pre-Einsteinian "God's Eye View" of reality-the Newtonian conception in which the world looks the same to everyone. There may be judgments, of course, about whether the student has progressed enough or whether he or she is doing well-as indicated by the graph. The graph itself, however, is presented as an accurate and indisputable index of actual learning outcomes.

What would a CBA/DI proponent say to a child who proudly announces: "I read two books over the weekend! They were great, they were about . . . "? Does that mean that such accomplishment cannot be trusted as an indicator of real progress because the behavior reported was not measured under controlled conditions and does not fit into the predetermined sequences of tasks to be mastered which could leave the behavior open to interpretation? Suppose a teacher reports that a student, whose progress according to CBA/DI measures in reading achievement is poor, nonetheless has read several books, who can tell you very well what has been read, and who has gained insight and poses questions about the material. Does that mean that the teacher's observations cannot be trusted as an indicator of real progress? In such a (not infrequently occurring) case, which is correct, the real-life indicators or the CBA/DI graphs? Suppose a parent says: "I don't care that she reads x number of words correctly per minute. She hates reading, she hates doing these workbooks, and hates what she is told to read in class." Does that mean that the child's and parents' construction of meaning is not real learning, is not related to learning outcomes, and therefore is not inherently important for formal assessment? Suppose that a teacher or researcher counts and graphs these same children's correct responses to predetermined, controlled task components. Does that mean that, finally, real learning has now been observed?

The simple procedures "to produce data" (Deno, 1985, p. 228) lead to graphs of controlled performance on isolated task components that are so clear, so purged of human interpretation and of human judgment, so simple, so easily constructed and displayed, so objectified, and so indisputable a medium for all parties involved, that I fear what they represent is a mummification of knowing rather than real knowledge. To borrow van Manen's (1986) words, the graphs represent 'a language of hope out of which hope itself has been systematically purged" (p. 25). Or, as Gardner (1984) characterized the IQ movement, these graphs seem blindly empirical" (p. 18).

CBA/DI proponents, of course, may personally value the information provided by the preceding anecdotes," and their importance may thus filter into the decision-making processes. Even that, however, is not guaranteed as there is no formal place for the information they offer within CBA/DI constructs, procedures, and fundamental assumptions. In educational constructs referred to below, these anecdotes cease to be anecdotes and are included as crucial information for formal assessment of learning outcomes, because definitions of "learning outcomes" are fundamentally different.

The heart of contemporary debates centers around the critical ontological and epistemological questions: What do we decide may count as real (and by implication what may not count as real), and how do we allow (or not allow) each other to know? Even more intriguingly: Who makes these decisions in the first place? And on what grounds and beliefs? Just because a researcher or a teacher has a "method" to "produce data" by quantifying and graphing student responses that were designed and controlled to be quantified and graphed in the first place, does that make her or him the owner of epistemologically privileged knowledge?

One of the solid conclusions emerging from contemporary debates on these issues is that the belief of CBA/DI proponents-that one can circumvent human judgment by the use of a mechanistic, supposedly objective method that gives rise to indisputable knowledge claims-constitutes in itself a human, historically constructed motive.

To be scientific in the 1980s no longer means to have to reduce complexity to an unambiguous simplicity reached through the dictates of measurement and the idea of control in an attempt to escape from human judgment, human discourse, and (where necessary) human negotiations. Rather, it is becoming very clear that being scientific about human behavior has more to do with acknowledging, respecting, and trying to make explicit individual interests, conflicts, and motives, as well as trying to find moral and mutually agreeable ways to negotiate differences instead of denying their existence by pushing them aside as nonscientific. In our postpositivist era, we simply can no longer hold on to the belief that fact can be separated from value, the knower from that which is to be known, and cognition from meaning and affect. In other words, we cannot take ourselves, our values, interests, needs, and consciousness out of the act of knowing. The CBA/DI movement, however, shows great resistance to these contemporary understandings.

None of this means that we do away with structure, and with attending to specifics to be learned. It does mean that "structure" and "skills" take on different forms and manifestations because decisions as to how things are taught, when, by whose initiative, and for what reasons are decided within the web of students' and teachers' real contexts and purposes.

Contemporary philosophers of science and scientists who have analyzed the inadequacies of mechanistic thought point to the paralyzing influence its infrastructure of analysis, fragmentation, efficiency, and control exerts by ignoring the a priori, unreducible, and unerasable connections of each "part" to its whole context from which it derives its appearance. The next section on alternative assessment stresses the need to reconnect the relation between instruction and assessment to the whole context of being human. It rejects bridging the gap between assessment and instruction (that characterizes the standardized testing model of assessment) by forcing closure through procedures of measurement and external control as CBA/DI would have it. Instead it closes the gap between assessment and instruction by letting both emerge, interactively, from authentic and holistic learning contexts and from a fundamentally different set of assumptions about what counts as real and how we agree to claim knowledge.


CBA proponents have implied or have explicitly stated (see e.g., Bursuck & Lessen, 1987, p. 26) that the field of special education has only two approaches available to assess student performance: namely, standardized testing and the various manifestations of the CBA/DI movement. However, there are other conceptualizations of what assessment means based on actual theories of learning and theories of literacy acquisition. These include assessment based on Piagetian thought (in Reid & Hresko, 1981), dynamic and other forms of process assessment (see overview by Meyers & Lyte, 1988), and ecological conceptualizations of assessment. The latter point to our growing awareness that schools are social systems and that social aspects of schooling are centrally related to student outcomes (see Goodlad, 1979). School ecology has been a concern of special education for some time and has recently been reiterated by Ysseldyke and Christensen (1987), who set forth an extensive list of ecological factors shown by standard research procedures to impinge on students' school performance.

These alternative approaches, however, do not consistently challenge the mechanistic/reductionistic construction of what it means to learn, to teach, to assess, and to achieve. Measures of student achievement, for example, are still typically equated with scores on standardized tests or student performance on controlled, predetermined tasks. Proponents of ecological assessment typically add their ecological concerns to the standard mechanistic approaches to instruction and assessment.

Recent movements toward holistic education, in which ecological and process concerns are also of central importance, directly challenge and replace mechanistic/reductionistic constructions. Following is a brief outline of what such a shift entails for reconceptualizing assessment within the field of special education. (See Church & Newman, 1986; Dudley-Marling, 1986; Goodman, 1982; Heshusius, 1989; Poplin, 1988b; Valencia & Pearson, 1988; Weaver, 1982, 1988. Collectively, these publications set out a view of assessment that includes, but is not limited to, the principles of the outline.)

* Valid indicators of learning are outcomes of authentic learning processes. Authentic learning results from activities that are grounded in authentic personal purpose, as perceived by the learner. Indicators of learning need to reflect real reading, real writing, and real math, that is, learning for real purposes, not exercises in learning. Meaning and context are central to all learning and, therefore, to any assessment activity; they constitute the very ground from which learning and therefore instruction and assessment emerge.

* The conceptualization of "data" as forms of quantification (a concept that is the basis for both standardized testing and CBA) does not offer appropriate conditions for assessment. Rather, documentation of both the actual, real life processes and outcomes of regular learning activities are the stuff' assessment is made of.

* Authentic or real learning directly emerges from self-organizing and self-regulating principles within the learner as he or she interacts with the environment.

* Authentic learning expresses itself in many different ways, in many different contexts, and for many different conditions of use and purpose, mirroring the complexity of life. Indicators that learning has occurred, therefore, can potentially come from an unlimited number of contexts and sources. Holistic assessment does not adhere to the reductionistic fallacy that a single measure can "save" the complexity of the many ways learning can express itself. The goal of holistic assessment is not to obtain single measures on controlled tasks but to acquire a multiplicity of data and data sources.

* Authentic learning expresses itself at different levels. Indicators of kinetic, intuitive, and artistic learning are also valid indicators of learning.

* "Errors" are an intrinsic, natural, valuable, and welcome part of authentic learning. Errors can be sources of the emergence of understanding, ways of constructing meaning that provide insights into the students' internal structure of her or his reasoning and feeling. Describing and guiding these thoughts and affective processes is the important focus for assessment, not the counting of errors.

* Multiple plausible responses exist to many questions and problems. To superimpose known outcomes is in many cases a consequence of a synthetic or artificial construction of knowledge.

* Learning occurs often as a social engagement. Assessment activities need to reflect the social nature of learning. (Vygotskian constructs of scaffolding and zones of proximal development are important here.)

* Authentic learning does not occur in a stable, steadily progressing manner; rather, its visible outcomes are variable. Learning often falls back somewhat in observable progress, particularly when new concepts are introduced or after hard work has been accomplished. Assessment activities need to allow for this natural variability in accomplishments.


The present analysis does not deny that some students who are put through CBA/DI measurement and control procedures increase their performance on controlled tasks. Nor does this article question the goodness of intentions. The argument has been that measurement-driven ways of thinking about education thwart authentic learning as they steer the construct of learning into an exceedingly narrow and artificially constructed path. One needs to worry about the messages the measured and controlled curriculum can give to both children and teachers. Certain messages concern identifications: what the process of human learning is about; for whom one learns, for what reasons, by whose dictates, and for whose goals and values; who judges whether learning has taken place; and whom one is trying to please. Other messages are more explicitly negative: what does not count in life; the unimportance of one's own ideas, needs, and interests; the abilities of others to harness what and how one learns with little or no concern for the worth of the content of what is being controlled nor for one's perceptions of it; what the real relationship between teacher and student is about. Similar concerns within the special education literature have been expressed in one way or another by Alterwerger and Bird (1982), Ballard (1987), Ferguson (1989), Goodman (1982), Guess and Siegel (1988), Iano (1986, 1987), Poplin 1988a, 1988b), Skrtic (1986), Rhodes and Shannon (1982), Valencia and Pearson (1988), Weaver (1982, 1988), and Wood and Shears 1986).

We clearly have entered a new era in our understanding of how knowledge is constructed both individually and communally. We need to return to those complex, human processes-personal, social, and cultural-from which human learning and teaching directly emerge. These processes cannot be added to standard "tools" that tell us to teach the test; rather, instruction and assessment need to emerge directly from them.

Whether or not CBA/DI proponents wish to acknowledge it, "the four wicked centuries" of dreaming the "foolish dream of efficiency" seem to be coming to an end.


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LOUS HESHUSIUS is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, Ontario, Canada.

Manuscript received March 1989; revision accepted August 1989.

Exceptional Children, Vol.57, No. 4, pp. 315-328. [C] 1991 The Council for Exceptional Children.
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Date:Feb 1, 1991
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