Unpacking Ontologically Responsible Assessment

In this post I want to unpack the term Ontologically Responsible Assessment mentioned in this post

Why Develop an Ontology:

An ontology defines a common vocabulary for researchers who need to share information in a domain. It includes machine-interpretable definitions of basic concepts in the domain and relations among them.  . . .   There is no one correct way to model a domain— there are always viable alternatives. The best solution almost always depends on the application that you have in mind .  Source

When people say that students need 21st Century skills, what they really mean is that they want to change their ontological commitments as to what students are, and to what they will become.  When we move from a mechanistic factory model of education to a dialogic networked model; we are really changing our ontological commitments from components in a machine to actors in a network.  Ontologies try to clarify questions about the nature of being and becoming a student in the context of educational practice.  I would add (to the typical information systems objectivist account) that an ontology in educational practice also involves recognizing that students are constituted by networked relationships and the various domain discourses within which they interact.  The main difference in this ontology is that (in contradistinction to most information systems ontologies) its organization is not hierarchal and behavioral, but rather contexted, networked and dialogic.  This doesn’t mean there is no place for hierarchal behavioral objectives, just that they no longer form the core of our educational goals.

Why Responsibility:

Depending on whether one believes that reality is objectively given or subjectively / collectively constituted, the understanding of responsibility will differ. This, in turn, has a serious impact on how individuals and collectives can or should use IS (Information Systems).  . . . Reality is thus not given and open to objective discovery but outcome of the intentional activity of perception and interpersonal communication. This means that the dimensions of responsibility must be discovered through communication. (Stahl, 2007 Available from Research Gate or Ontologies, Integrated Series in Information Systems Volume 14, 2007, pp 143-169)

Education can’t be conceived through objective behavioral description, rather, it is conceived in the context of conversational realities.  Students are not cogs in a machine, but are people and the conversational realities where we meet them involves commitments, requirements, privileges, and various other high level latent traits that defy easy objectification.  To be responsible is to jointly actualize an educational program.

What Do I mean by Assessment:

What is the purpose of educational assessment?  Wikipedia speaks about documenting knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs.  Merriam Webster talks about making judgements.  Edutopia talks about assessment as a mechanism for instruction.  I want to focus on another aspects that may seem technical, but I believe gets to the heart of the matter.

What is it that we measure are latent constructs for the most part.  As Michael Kane (2013) frames it:

Test scores are of interest because they are used to support claims that go beyond (often far beyond) the observed performances. We generally do not employ test scores simply to report how a test taker performed on certain tasks on a certain occasion and under certain conditions. Rather, the scores are used to support claims that a test taker has, for example, some level of achievement in some domain, some standing on a trait, or some probability of succeeding in an educational program or other activity. These claims are not generally self-evident and merit evaluation.  Validating the Interpretations and Uses of Test Scores

More than anything else, assessment, at its core, is the process of estimating a latent trait and making it visible.  It is the first step in the analytic process of drawing connections, but we can’t connect the dots until they are visible to us.  There are 2 people for whom this is of primary importance: the teacher and the student.  If we observe the educational practices that involve testing, these are often the last 2 stakeholders that are given consideration, but they should be the first.


This 3 fold understanding of educational assessment includes developing an ontology where assessment practices recognize a full account of the being and becoming of students.  It does not restrict our view to what is easily measured, but essentially meaningless in the bigger picture or final analysis.  Secondly, it is responsible in that assessment is linked to an expectation for engagement that goes beyond behavioral description to fully recognize the full complexity of that student engagement as a dialogic and networked individual.  And finally, it does not use data in a mechanistic fashion, but uses construct measurement to make their joint responsibilities and ontologies visible to teachers and students in everyday educational practice.


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