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The Myth of the Normal Curve

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Edited By Curt Dudley-Marling and Alex Gurn

It is generally taken for granted that human behavior distributes along the lines of a bell-shaped, normal curve. This idea underpins much educational theory, research, and practice. There is, however, a considerable body of research demonstrating that the normal curve grossly misrepresents the human experience. Yet the acceptance of the normal curve continues to be used to pathologize children and adults with disabilities by positioning them as abnormal. Collectively, the contributors to this volume critique the ideology of the normal curve. Some explicitly challenge the assumptions that underpin the normal curve. Others indirectly critique notions of normality by examining the impact of normal curve thinking on educational policies and practices. Many contributors go beyond critiquing the normal curve to propose alternative ways to imagine human differences. All contributors agree that the hegemony of the normal curve has had a devastating effect on those presumed to live on the boundaries of normal.

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9 Miner’s Canaries and Boiling Frogs: Fiction and Facts about Normalcy in Educational and Reading Assessment - Arlette Ingram Willis 123

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This chapter examines and critiques notions of normality from its taken-for-granted everyday usage to its roots and routes in education with a special focus on reading assessment. Of particular importance are the ideological as- sumptions that frame educational and reading assessment, especially the long held assumption that human intelligence distributes “normally.” Examining these collective histories of assessment helps to explain the tradition of categorizing and tracking student academic progress by race, class, and gender and helps to explain why this tradition remains largely unchallenged in current school reform efforts which continue to rely heavily on norm-referenced reading assessments. The Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), for example, is hav- ing a profound affect on the direction of reading instruction in classrooms across the country (see Goodman, 2006, for useful critique of DIBELS). There is an old tale that if frogs are placed in very cold or very hot water they will adjust, even to the point of being boiled alive as the heat is gradually turned up. The idea that amphibians naturally adapt to their environment, even if it kills them, seems to make sense. It is so unordinary an idea that it seems normal. But, as it turns out, the tale of the boiling frogs is untrue. Biologists have observed that frogs will jump out of boiling water to save their lives. Yet this story contin- ues to appeal, functioning as an allegory to express the idea that people are often slow to acknowledge and react to...

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