Monday, October 1, 2018
The New Standardized Morality Test. Really.
I'm not really sure how to start this, because -- well, I'll just let the lede on this press release speak for itself:
IOWA CITY, Iowa—ACT, the nonprofit developer of the ACT® test and other assessments taken by millions of individuals worldwide, announced today that it was selected by the Crown Prince Court in Abu Dhabi to provide the Moral Education Standardized Assessment (MESA) for the Moral Education program in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It goes with the moral education program developed for the UAE. If you look at it, it seems relatively benign. Based on four pillars, which are Character & Morality, Individual & Community, Civic Studies, and Cultural Studies. The four goals are to build character, instill ethical outlook, foster community, and endear culture. The local goal is to "develop responsible, cultured, engaged adults ready for the wider globalized world. The global objective is to "develop student awareness of the shared human experience and make them messengers of the values they embody."
As one might expect, there is all manner of moral irony in this plan for a nation that is not exactly an egalitarian haven for freedom of expression and the rights of women and children (the penal code allows the "chastisement by a husband of his wife and … minor child" as long as he doesn't go to far. Homosexuality is not explicitly forbidden throughout the UAE (ten years for sodomy in Dubai), though certain emirates do forbid it and all the UAE criminalizes "indecency" which ends up meaning "consensual sexual relationships outside heterosexual marriage."
But then, that's the problem when you start deciding to teach everyone the same standardized moral code--exactly whose code do you officially enshrine. "Don't kill people on purpose" is an easy one, but then we start getting into grey areas. As benign as the above listing sounds, some folks are already hearing alarms because of that "global" thing. And the definition of the second pillar is "a true citizen is one that takes care of themselves in addition to caring about the good of society..." which either means good citizens are sufficiently selfish or maybe that good citizens don't need or take welfare. Character is about students being "honest, tolerant, resilient and persevering" but nobody anywhere thinks you're supposed to tolerate everything, so where are those lines drawn.
Morality is sticky and complicated, and I'm not going to pin it down here. It's one thing to manage your own moral growth and another thing to foster the moral development of family and friends and still quite another thing to have a company hired by a government draft up morality curriculum that will be delivered by yet another wing of the government. And it is yet another other thing to create a standardized test by which to give students morality scores.
But the folks at ACT say they will "leverage the expertise of U.S.-based research and test development teams to create the assessment, which will utilize the latest theory and principles of social and emotional learning (SEL) through the development process." That is quite a pile of jargon to dress up "We're going to cobble together a test to measure how moral a student is. The test will be based on stuff."
ACT Chief Commercial Officer Suzana Delanghe is quoted saying "We are thrilled to be supporting a holistic approach to student success" and promises that they will create a "world class assessment that measures UAE student readiness" because even an ACT manager knows better than to say that they're going to write a standardized test for morality.
One of the challenges of test design is to create questions and tasks that will show that the student possesses the knowledge and skill that they were supposed to be learning, and not that the student possesses the skill to game the test, to give the desired response without possessing the desired knowledge. A test of beliefs, of morality, is ten times worse. It's like the employment interview question that asks, "Do you think it's okay to steal from your employer?" The answer mostly tells the employer whether or not the interviewee is smart enough to know what the answer is supposed to be. That's the problem with morality; it's easy to fake, especially if you are immoral enough to be comfortable with such fakery.
It would be easy to pass this course and test off as an exercise in futility, except for a couple of things. First, the test will likely be digital, and therefor captured as more data for the test taker's personal permanent file. Second, while the program is being piloted for UAE, once ACT has it built, they're sure to want to market it other places as well. Keep your eyes peeled for the standardized morality test at a school near you.
Originally posted at Forbes.