Sunday, February 16, 2014

Of Symbolic Awareness and Assessment

The Big Electronic Assessment System Thing exists without conventional physical form within the long-term and working memories of devices numbering in the thousands, if not millions. At its beginning were intracephalic electrochemical impulses that when eventually conducted to the forearm musculature of people known as “coders” caused plastic keys to drop in ways that yielded sequences of symbols. These sequences are interpreted and/or understood in several ways; for instance, one that might appear to a human as

while (num < numstu) scorexam(num++);

may be stored in the host computer’s working memory as 01110111 01101000 01101001 etc., but when transformed (a.k.a. “compiled”) it becomes yet another sequence that directs the host ultimately to perform millions of individual data transfer and arithmetic operations. Thousands of such sequences constitute but one part of the BEAST.

The BEAST must be fed, the process of which begins when learned heads convene to design curricula, the objectives of which are to instill specific competencies, the assessments of which yield numbers that ostensibly correlate with the degree to which students know and/or do things worth knowing and/or doing. The assessments are both raison d’etre and sustenance for the BEAST, and much work transpires in their creation alone. For an assessment to be consistent with those guarding the gates of the students’ intended profession, the writer must craft questions not so difficult that no-one could answer, nor so easy that everyone could. For each question several alternative answers must be provided: one that is correct but not trivially so, and others plausible at first glance but deficient in some way manifest on closer inspection.

As did the coders before them, the writers tap their keyboards to arrange symbols in specific combinations, these meant to be understood by humans. An assistant amasses items from several writers, after which the lead writer and delegates proofread, revise, and reformat the items in close consultation with their original writers. The asymptote of refinement having been reached, the assistant and lead writer feed the finalized items to the BEAST, and these along with instructions meaningful only to the BEAST become an assessment.

Once again a result of great human effort, assessment day is choreographed down to the second. Students enter their assigned rooms at prescribed times, and when instructed, simultaneously awaken the portion of the BEAST that resides within their personal computers. On airborne interdependent electric and magnetic fields oscillating at frequencies orders of magnitude above the highest-pitched scream, individualized assessments propagate to each student’s computer, eliciting within each student a strong biochemical response that intensifies as the allotted time wanes.

The BEAST is at once nowhere and anywhere: within strands of glass, cables of copper, plates of rusted iron, cells of photo-etched silicon, in the air itself, but most importantly, within synapses of assessment writers still and their striving students now.

In ways so many more than those given above can we trace this moment to its roots, one stretching through the red-hot cathodes of ENIAC’s tubes to the holes in Hollerith’s punchcards, another spanning the discoveries and innovations that compose the very subject of the assessment. Hundreds of person-years invested, prizes won and lives lost (some less metaphorically than others), all converge upon the final minute during which Ulf Unteretschaever with uncharacteristic efficiency selects “C” for all thirty remaining unread questions, thereby garnering the six points he needs to reach the 69.5% threshold that brings him one step closer to licensure for a profession in which lives will depend on his firm command of the material.


Ogre Proctor Hep


  1. I doff my hat, sir.

    (and I'm stealing Ulf Unteretschaever)

  2. God help us all.

    Also, I think Vonnegut would have loved this piece.

  3. Thank you Rx+G and BC. Thank you, Beaker Ben, for favorably considering it for publication.

    Hey, I just got positive reviews for my original submission published in a refereed academic journal. I'm totally putting this on my CV.