Contesting the Claim, Part II: Are Rasch Measures Really as Objective as Physical Measures?

When a raw score is sufficient to the task of measurement, the model is the Rasch model, we can estimate the parameters consistently, and we can evaluate the fit of the data to the model. The invariance properties that follow from a sufficient statistic include virtually the entire class of invariant rules (Hall, Wijsman, & Ghosh, 1965; Arnold, 1985), and similar relationships with other key measurement properties follow from there (Fischer, 1981, 1995; Newby, Conner, Grant, & Bunderson, 2009; Wright, 1977, 1997).

What does this all actually mean? Imagine we were able to ask an infinite number of people an infinite number of questions that all work together to measure the same thing. Because (1) the scores are sufficient statistics, (2) the ruler is not affected by what is measured, (3) the parameters separate, and (4) the data fit the model, any subset of the questions asked would give the same measure. This means that any subscore for any person measured would be a function of any and all other subscores. When a sufficient statistic is a function of all other sufficient statistics, it is not only sufficient, it is necessary, and is referred to as a minimally sufficient statistic. Thus, if separable, independent model parameters can be estimated, the model must be the Rasch model, and the raw score is both sufficient and necessary (Andersen, 1977; Dynkin, 1951; van der Linden, 1992).

This means that scores, ratings, and percentages actually stand for something measurable only when they fit a Rasch model.  After all, what actually would be the point of using data that do not support the estimation of independent parameters? If the meaning of the results is tied in unknown ways to the specific particulars of a given situation, then those results are meaningless, by definition (Roberts & Rosenbaum, 1986; Falmagne & Narens, 1983; Mundy, 1986; Narens, 2002; also see Embretson, 1996; Romanoski and Douglas, 2002). There would be no point in trying to learn anything from them, as whatever happened was a one-time unique event that tells us nothing we can use in any future event (Wright, 1977, 1997).

What we’ve done here is akin to taking a narrative stroll through a garden of mathematical proofs. These conceptual analyses can be very convincing, but actual demonstrations of them are essential. Demonstrations would be especially persuasive if there would be some way of showing three things. First, shouldn’t there be some way of constructing ordinal ratings or scores for one or another physical variable that, when scaled, give us measures that are the same as the usual measures we are accustomed to?

This would show that we can use the type of instrument usually found in the social sciences to construct physical measures with the characteristics we expect. There are four available examples, in fact, involving paired comparisons of weights (Choi, 1998), measures of short lengths (Fisher, 1988), ratings of medium-range distances (Moulton, 1993), and a recovery of the density scale (Pelton & Bunderson, 2003). In each case, the Rasch-calibrated experimental instruments produced measures equivalent to the controls, as shown in linear plots of the pairs of measures.

A second thing to build out from the mathematical proofs are experiments in which we check the purported stability of measures and calibrations. We can do this by splitting large data sets, using different groups of items to produce two or more measures for each person, or using different groups of respondents/examinees to provide data for two or more sets of item calibrations. This is a routine experimental procedure in many psychometric labs, and results tend to conform with theory, with strong associations found between increasing sample sizes and increasing reliability coefficients for the respective measures or calibrations. These associations can be plotted (Fisher, 2008), as can the pairs of calibrations estimated from different samples (Fisher, 1999), and the pairs of measures estimated from different instruments (Fisher, Harvey, Kilgore, et al., 1995; Smith & Taylor, 2004). The theoretical expectation of tighter plots for better designed instruments, larger sample sizes, and longer tests is confirmed so regularly that it should itself have the status of a law of nature (Linacre, 1993).

A third convincing demonstration is to compare studies of the same thing conducted in different times and places by different researchers using different instruments on different samples. If the instruments really measure the same thing, there will not only be obvious similarities in their item contents, but similar items will calibrate in similar positions on the metric across samples. Results of this kind have been obtained in at least three published studies (Fisher, 1997a, 1997b; Belyukova, Stone, & Fox, 2004).

All of these arguments are spelled out in greater length and detail, with illustrations, in a forthcoming article (Fisher, 2009). I learned all of this from Benjamin Wright, who worked directly with Rasch himself, and who, perhaps more importantly, was prepared for what he could learn from Rasch in his previous career as a physicist. Before encountering Rasch in 1960, Wright had worked with Feynman at Cornell, Townes at Bell Labs, and Mulliken at the University of Chicago. Taught and influenced not just by three of the great minds of twentieth-century physics, but also by Townes’ philosophical perspectives on meaning and beauty, Wright had left physics in search of life. He was happy to transfer his experience with computers into his new field of educational research, but he was dissatisfied with the quality of the data and how it was treated.

Rasch’s ideas gave Wright the conceptual tools he needed to integrate his scientific values with the demands of the field he was in. Over the course of his 40-year career in measurement, Wright wrote the first software for estimating Rasch model parameters and continuously improved it; he adapted new estimation algorithms for Rasch’s models and was involved in the articulation of new models; he applied the models to hundreds of data sets using his software; he vigorously invested himself in students and colleagues; he founded new professional societies, meetings, and journals;  and he never stopped learning how to think anew about measurement and the meaning of numbers. Through it all, there was always a yardstick handy as a simple way of conveying the basic requirements of measurement as we intuitively understand it in physical terms.

Those of us who spend a lot of time working with these ideas and trying them out on lots of different kinds of data forget or never realize how skewed our experience is relative to everyone else’s. I guess a person lives in a different world when you have the sustained luxury of working with very large databases, as I have had, and you see the constancy and stability of well-designed measures and calibrations over time, across instruments, and over repeated samples ranging from 30 to several million.

When you have that experience, it becomes a basic description of reasonable expectation to read the work of a colleague and see him say that “when the key features of a statistical model relevant to the analysis of social science data are the same as those of the laws of physics, then those features are difficult to ignore” (Andrich, 1988, p. 22). After calibrating dozens of instruments over 25 years, some of them many times over, it just seems like the plainest statement of the obvious to see the same guy say “Our measurement principles should be the same for properties of rocks as for the properties of people. What we say has to be consistent with physical measurement” (Andrich, 1998, p. 3).

And I find myself wishing more people held the opinion expressed by two other colleagues, that “scientific measures in the social sciences must hold to the same standards as do measures in the physical sciences if they are going to lead to the same quality of generalizations” (Bond & Fox, 2001, p. 2). When these sentiments are taken to their logical conclusion in a practical application, the real value of “attempting for reading comprehension what Newtonian mechanics achieved for astronomy” (Burdick & Stenner, 1996) becomes apparent. Rasch’s analogy of the structure of his model for reading tests and Newton’s Second Law can be restated relative to any physical law expressed as universal conditionals among variable triplets; a theory of the variable measured capable of predicting item calibrations provides the causal story for the observed variation (Burdick, Stone, & Stenner, 2006; DeBoeck & Wilson, 2004).

Knowing what I know, from the mathematical principles I’ve been trained in and from the extensive experimental work I’ve done, it seems amazing that so little attention is actually paid to tools and concepts that receive daily lip service as to their central importance in every facet of life, from health care to education to economics to business. Measurement technology rose up decades ago in preparation for the demands of today’s challenges. It is just plain weird the way we’re not using it to anything anywhere near its potential.

I’m convinced, though, that the problem is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric applied to the minds of the right people. Rather, someone, hopefully me, has got to configure the right combination of players in the right situation at the right time and at the right place to create a new form of real value that can’t be created any other way. Like they say, money talks. Persuasion is all well and good, but things will really take off only when people see that better measurement can aid in removing inefficiencies from the management of human, social, and natural capital, that better measurement is essential to creating sustainable and socially responsible policies and practices, and that better measurement means new sources of profitability.  I’m convinced that advanced measurement techniques are really nothing more than a new form of IT or communications technology. They will fit right into the existing networks and multiply their efficiencies many times over.

And when they do, we may be in a position to finally

“confront the remarkable fact that throughout the gigantic range of physical knowledge numerical laws assume a remarkably simple form provided fundamental measurement has taken place. Although the authors cannot explain this fact to their own satisfaction, the extension to behavioral science is obvious: we may have to await fundamental measurement before we will see any real progress in quantitative laws of behavior. In short, ordinal scales (even continuous ordinal scales) are perhaps not good enough and it may not be possible to live forever with a dozen different procedures for quantifying the same piece of behavior, each making strong but untestable and basically unlikely assumptions which result in nonlinear plots of one scale against another. Progress in physics would have been impossibly difficult without fundamental measurement and the reader who believes that all that is at stake in the axiomatic treatment of measurement is a possible criterion for canonizing one scaling procedure at the expense of others is missing the point” (Ramsay, Bloxom, and Cramer, 1975, p. 262).

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3 Responses to “Contesting the Claim, Part II: Are Rasch Measures Really as Objective as Physical Measures?”

  1. Sharon Solloway Says:

    As always, I learn from reading your work. I would like to follow up on some of the citations, but I don’t see a reference list. Is it possible to get a reference list for each of these blogs?…thanks, sharon

  2. Sharon Solloway Says:


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