Research Traditions and History of Measurement

"What we need, if our appraisals [of alternative theories] are to be at all reliable, is serious historical scholarship devoted to the various research traditions in any given field of inquiry" (Laudan, 1977, p. 194).

A variety of measurement theories have been proposed for quantifying human characteristics during the 20th century. They range from one major theory with minor variations (Goldstein & Wood, 1989) to "a growing (and bewildering) array of models" (Thissen & Steinberg, 1986, p.567). Given this variety, how can we organize our thoughts about relevant criteria for comparing different models for quantifying such human characteristics as cognitive ability, mathematics achievement and self concept?

One answer, the approach I use to guide my work on the history and philosophy of measurement, is the idea of "research traditions" developed by Laudan (1977). Recent research on the history and philosophy of science has used this idea to trace progress in different physical and social sciences (Laudan, 1977; Donovan, Laudan & Laudan, 1988). Research traditions are similar to paradigms (Kuhn, 1970), research programs (Lakatos, 1978) and disciplines (Cronbach, 1957, 1975). This concept can provide a useful framework for examining progress in measurement theory during the 20th century. A research tradition has the following characteristics: (1) it defines the aspects of quantification which are viewed as problematic, (2) it defines the methods which can be used to address these problems, and finally, (3) through the definition of measurement problems and methods, a research tradition has a significant impact on how social science research is conducted. Different research traditions imply different assumptions and different ways of viewing measurement and social science research. The problems selected for study, the statistical models used to analyze the data, the results of the inquiry and the policy implications drawn from the research depend on the measurement models used.

In measurement, there are two research traditions. One is a scaling tradition. The other is a test score tradition. The scaling tradition focuses on the calibration of individual items and the measurement of persons on a shared latent variable. The roots of this scaling tradition are in psychophysics with E. L. Thorndike, Thurstone, Guttman, Lazarsfeld and Rasch, the major contributors. The test score tradition focuses on total test scores, and the linear decomposition of these scores into true scores and error components. The original work was initiated by Spearman (1904) [who originated the psychometric use of the term "reliability"]. Two current approaches to measurement theory in the test score tradition involve the application of analysis of variance procedures by Cronbach and his colleagues (1963, 1972), and the use of factor analysis to provide a framework for addressing measurement issues related to reliability and validity (Joreskog, 1971, 1979).

A central task in the history of measurement theory is to examine progress. The evaluation of how far we have come towards the solution of key empirical and conceptual problems in educational and psychological measurement is a comparative process. The concept of research traditions can play an important role in structuring our thoughts about progress in measurement theory. Three major steps in this evaluation are (1) development of criteria for comparing theories, (2) identification of major theories, and (3) comparison of theories based on these criteria.

I am applying this approach to one of the basic puzzles in the history of measurement theory: why did the test score tradition become the dominant tradition in the practice of educational and psychological testing? Thorndike's work at the beginning of the 20th century is clearly in the scaling tradition. Strong arguments can be made for considering him the father of item response theory. Yet even his own student, Ben Wood, ended up aligned with the test score tradition. Thurstone's work on absolute scaling was certainly familiar to all measurement theorists. Yet our research publications are still more likely to report KR20's and alpha coefficients than calibrated items on maps of variables of the kind used by Thurstone in the 1920's. Andrich (1988) provides an analysis of how advances in Rasch measurement represent a paradigm shift in social science measurement and this may provide part of the answer to the question. And yet, at the turn of the century and certainly until WWI, it seems that either research tradition could have become dominant. If you have any thoughts about why the test score tradition become dominant, I would like to hear your ideas.



Research Traditions and History of Measurement, G Engelhard Jr … Rasch Measurement Transactions, 1991, 4:4 p. 126


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