Leading mathematician debunks ‘value-added’

By John Ewing | Published September 5 2011 by The Answer Sheet Blog

Mathematicians occasionally worry about the misuse of their subject. G. H. Hardy famously wrote about mathematics used for war in his autobiography, A Mathematician’s Apology (and solidified his reputation as a foe of applied mathematics in doing so). More recently, groups of mathematicians tried to organize a boycott of the Star Wars [missile defense] project on the grounds that it was an abuse of mathematics. And even more recently some fretted about the role of mathematics in the financial meltdown.

But the most common misuse of mathematics is simpler, more pervasive, and (alas) more insidious: mathematics employed as a rhetorical weapon—an intellectual credential to convince the public that an idea or a process is “objective” and hence better than other competing ideas or processes. This is mathematical intimidation. It is especially persuasive because so many people are awed by mathematics and yet do not understand it—a dangerous combination.

The latest instance of the phenomenon is valued-added modeling (VAM), used to interpret test data. Value-added modeling pops up everywhere today, from newspapers to television to political campaigns. VAM is heavily promoted with unbridled and uncritical enthusiasm by the press, by politicians, and even by (some) educational experts, and it is touted as the modern, “scientific” way to measure educational success in everything from charter schools to individual teachers.

Yet most of those promoting value-added modeling are ill-equipped to judge either its effectiveness or its limitations. Some of those who are equipped make extravagant claims without much detail, reassuring us that someone has checked into our concerns and we shouldn’t worry. Value-added modeling is promoted because it has the right pedigree — because it is based on “sophisticated mathematics.”As a consequence, mathematics that ought to be used to illuminate ends up being used to intimidate. When that happens, mathematicians have a responsibility to speak out.

Read more: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/leading-mathematician-debunks-value-added/2011/05/08/AFb999UG_blog.html

 

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