A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing

In September I was asked, by the editor of a New Zealand magazine “Education Today”, to interpret the book ” A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing”, By Mark J Garrison,  in light of the politically imposed national standards achievement agenda in New Zealand primary schools.

As this magazine has now been published I am able to publish the article on this blog. While I’ve looked at the New Zealand situation, the book is actually written for the USA education scene, and is extremely relevant and pertinent in explaining, in Garrison’s view, what underpins the relentless focus on standardized testing.


A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing

By Mark J Garrison.

State University of New York Press

Mark Garrison is Associate Professor and Director of Doctoral Programs at D’Youville College, Buffalo, New York State, with a particular interest in the political functions of education reforms. This gives him a different perspective on the school reform movement. He delivers as the title promises, and makes a very powerful case indeed. Naturally the book has an American focus, but the links to the current situation in New Zealand are very easy to draw.

His focus isn’t a review of whether standards, in any form, have a role in education, but instead an analysis of how and why they have become such a pivotal player. His view, which is developed at times through the book, is that some kind of professionally developed standards are essential; it is the political nature of imposed standards that is his concern.

The expression of standards through testing programmes underpins his writing. However it is a simple task to view the National Standards and accompanying use of Overall Teacher Judgements (OTJs) through the same filter. The possibility of a nationwide testing programme being instituted in New Zealand at some future time also adds extra relevance to this book.

The consistent thread running through the book is that standards originated as political tools and that this continues to this day. While that may not be surprising, it is the depth (and deviousness?) of the use of standards in manipulating education that Garrison highlights in this well-referenced book.

He commences by remarking on the growing use of standardized testing, regardless of the consistently expressed concerns held by a wide range of educational experts. New Zealand is no different in this regard, attempting to turn subjective teacher evaluations of children’s learning progress into objective judgements of achievement through the OTJ process.

Garrison’s observations are valid in this New Zealand context and if/when a formal testing programme commences, may be even more so.

Garrison asks;

  • How and why did standardized tests become the ubiquitous standard by which achievement and intelligence are measured? 
  • Why the same tools that are used show schools are ‘failing’ are also used as the tools to ‘improve’ them. 
  • Why have standardized tests became the standard for educational merit when numerous other possibilities exist? 
  • Why are standardized tests playing such a key role in debates about the future of public education?”

His contentions is that standardized tests were developed, not to assess ‘achievement’ but to prove that schools are failing. This has been taken to an extreme in the USA  to “justify the elimination of public education ‘as we know it.’ ” He suggests that the increasing emphasis on testing is political, a fight between ‘factions of elite’ and social classes, to gain control over the purpose and nature of schooling.

While his emphasis is on testing to monitor ‘achievement against standards’ the New Zealand use of OTJs is merely a different vehicle to get to the same destination. Garrison takes this further, concluding that standards are used to justify school reform through identifying ‘failing schools.’ Setting the bar at an ‘aspirational level” (which is common to USA, Australia and now New Zealand) increases the odds of failure, rather than ‘raising achievement.”

Having made such a definitive claim, Garrison then works through the background to the development of standardized testing, much of which can be related to a New Zealand context.

Garrison examines the historical uses, both politically, and in education. Questions that can be specifically related to the New Zealand education setting are:

  • How do struggles over standards reflect political struggles, with or within classes? 
  • Does a change in standards, or who controls the standards, relate to changes in governance? 
  • What is the theory of power embodied in the standard?
  • In what ways do the new standards embody the social values of the (governing) authority’s class or faction?

He continues by considering ability and achievement as social values, and this opens the door to a different way of looking at National Standards.

Garrison queries why students are labelled ‘good’ and ‘bad’ based on their academic prowess (or lack of prowess). He contends that surely this alone delineates the real aim of psychometry (the application of measures of measurement to the various branches of psychology) as the determination of social value. He extends this concept of social value further. Ascertaining ‘social value’ of individuals make possible the practice of “giving more to those who already have, for those who are of most value also ‘deserve’ the most.

It is the definition of social value in education that is crucial here. It is his contention that the ‘good/bad’, ‘success/failure’, high/low talent labels (we could add achieved/not achieved to this list) are used to reflect social value in schools. Further, the value of the education that is offered is dependent on the child’s social value.

Standards therefore are used as a system of vertical classification. It is an easy step to use this to consider the introduction of National Standards in New Zealand. Regardless of the ‘raising achievement/improving student outcomes rhetoric,  it is clear that children who effortlessly ‘achieve the standards’ each year, will then have the opportunities for a rich and full educational experience. Those who ‘fail to achieve the standards’ each year will be doomed to an endless cycle of chasing their literacy and numeracy tails, and so be denied the same educational opportunities as more fortunate peers.

Factoring in known relationships between poverty and lack of ‘achievement’ brings the obvious conclusion that children who were fortunate enough to be born into higher socio-economic households will be greatly advantaged educationally over their less fortunate peers. This conclusion is mirrored by Garrison:

“..working class students often receive basic skills training, while their middle class peers are engaged in art and science projects and enriching field trips; children of the ‘elite’ attend schools that prepare them for power.”

Interestingly, considering the last section of this quote, private schools in New Zealand are not required to set targets against National Standards. One wonders why this is?

The final step in this process relates to the capitalist philosophy that competition is good, and this is taken to its extreme in the USA. Increasing the number of tests increases the opportunities to ‘achieve’ and thus move up the social ranking – again this rewards the ‘deserving.’

Garrison then examines standardized tests as markers of value. Again, we need to include OTJs as a standardized assessment process – it’s the methodology that is different, not the purpose.  Some cherished beliefs about testing are challenged, and one of these is the use of the word ‘assessment’, which Garrison defines as:

“The process or means of evaluating academic work; an examination or test.” 

Continuing his focus on social value, Garrison finds that ‘assessment’ is linked to judging human value and includes “social hierarchy as a variable.” In a very strong link to National Standards, he also observes that ‘assessment’ is connected to “professional judgement, a notion that is connected to authority.” OTJs, in other words.

It is rather apparent, from this section, that the word ‘assessment’ needs to be used with caution. Using ‘assessment’ sends an unconscious signal of acceptance of the accompanying ideologies.

The links to OTJs grow stronger still, with the intent of assessment being to rank children into categories, assisted by numbers to provide validity. As he points out, standards assessment of this type are relative only, not an absolute or universal property. This sends a clear warning that placing undue reliance on OTJs is not a reliable tool for ‘assessing achievement’. The importance of this section as a window on New Zealand developments cannot be overstated.

Garrison goes on to discuss the difference between measurement and assessment, a confusion of which can lead to the error of ‘rendering the ranking of individuals as a measurement of their ability” and even more graphically, “designating some human beings as more valuable than others..” There is little that can be written in response to that.

Reviewing the political origins of testing, Garrison concludes that standards were, and still are, implicated in establishing and maintaining a political agenda, and in entrenching the value system of the school reform movement. This highlights the concerns raised by many New Zealand educators, providing support for the foreboding that National Standards are much more than a tool to ‘raise achievement.’

Just to hammer the point home, Garrison then sets about demonstrating the failure of standards, in a paragraph that has such huge implications for the debate here in New Zealand that it’s worth quoting at length:

“Far from being able to ‘close the achievement gap’ and promote opportunities for minorities, ‘standards based’ reforms have so far resulted in the opposite of the rhetoric that supports the practice; more and more children are ‘left behind’ as drop outs appear to be increasing and curriculums have narrowed as (mostly) working class and minority youth are condemned to a regime of test prep and little more. Standards based reform has failed to bring about fair, educational opportunities and even failed to provide accurate information on the state of public schools.” (Supported by a list of 12 references.)

Garrison then sets about dismantling the claims that ‘raising achievement’ will address the growing gaps in social inequality. He maintains that it is irrational to think that standards (designed to differentiate between learners) can then be used as tools to close equality gaps. Garrison highlights the socio-economic background of learners as the dominant factor, noting the contradiction of the  ‘closing the gaps through raising achievement’ rhetoric with the other political and financial decisions that exacerbate the inequality.

In a section that has extremely high relevance to New Zealand, he discusses the way political agencies in the USA work to establish a ‘non-rational basis for policy formation’ through repeatedly using assertions as though they were facts. That shines a different light on  the “one in child in five is failing” mantra, which is not supported by evidence.

Expanding on this;

“Test data mean what those in power says it means; the merits of the argument are to be determined by examining the social status of those making the argument.”

In other words, the production of belief as fact. As a senior Bush aide said, “We create our own reality.”

Garrison observes that this is leading to a centralisation of educational power in the USA. Simultaneously, the government is shirking responsibility for the provision of education, and shifting this to ‘market forces”(school privatisation). The introduction and extension of standardized testing is a key tool in this process. Attacks on public education and on those who attend and work in public schools, are aimed at ‘assimilating Americans to a lower standard of education” with the accompanying notion being that only those who ‘perform well’ deserve an education.

Garrison counters with his own belief, the “need for assessment in education to establish a new starting point, one predicated on the equal worth, dignity and rights of human beings and human cultures ” All members of the community need to be fully involved in the political and philosophical discussions around standards and education.  The voices of all groups of society need to be heard, not just the narrow vision of those representing a particular social class.

Garrison has written this book for the USA market, yet, with the exception of the specific references to USA, so much of what he writes could so easily be about New Zealand, the introduction of National Standards, and the supporting rhetoric. Two things are immediately very clear from this. First, the ideology behind standards is being imported as a package from elsewhere, and second, it will fail to achieve all that is claimed and in fact will create much greater problems.

The book provides a vital reference to support the torrent of concerns about National Standards. While  few sections are on the heavy side, this book of 114 pages is easy enough to read and my copy is heavily annotated. It’s an extremely useful reference, both to inform educators when developing school policies and procedures, and as a support for the anti-standards debate.

We end up in the same place. Why is the government doing this?

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The Plot Thickens

The end of  term three is here. When we kick off again on October 25th, we will be just over 4 weeks away out from the most important general election in the history of New Zealand education. This could bring the end of our world renowned primary school education and result in the imposition of the same kind of national testing madness that seems to be relentlessly spreading overseas, underpinned by the same privatisation and corporatisation agenda that is only too apparent in the USA.

The last week or so has brought a flurry of activity that suggests, however, that things are not going to plan for the 9th floor of the “Beehive.” For the benefit of overseas readers, the ‘Beehive’ is the nickname for the building that houses the government of the day, and the 9th floor is where the Prime Minister has his office.

The first sign of this was when the National Party’s tame blogger, under his blog name of “Whale Oil”, starting writing his usual near libelous articles about principals and teachers, and their professional organisations for daring to challenge the government’s agenda over the introduction of national’s standards. Given Whale Oil’s strong links to the National Party, we can surmise that he was following instructions from the top in writing these.

This week, we found out that the Ministry of Education (MOE) is sending letter two to those schools whose charters are still non-compliant by not including the mandated national standards targets.

Again, for the benefit of overseas readers, the requirements under the MOE dictates will mean that all primary schools will have to grade all their students against the relevant national standard by the end of this school year. This is to be done through teacher judgement, rather than tests, but the end result is the same. The resulting data is then to be sent to the MOE early next year, with the high probability of league tables, regardless of MOE denials.

This second letter will give a very short time frame for compliance. Schools who do not comply will then be sent letter three, appointing a limited statutory manager to write and submit a compliant charter. The government will then be able to claim that all schools are compliant, conveniently in the last week of the election campaign. 

Letter two has been timed to arrive as schools close for a two week break, thus making it much more difficult for schools to ‘comply’ by a specified deadline. Is this a result of accident, ignorance or deliberate design? 

I’m aware of at least two schools who are refusing to budge over including any reference to national’s standards in their charters (Dalefield School in the Wairarapa being one) , in the full knowledge that this will force the MOE to dismiss their Boards of Trustees and appoint a commissioner to run their schools. This will undoubtedly attract media attention and further spoil the grand plan.

To add to the government’s discomfort, the Nelson Mail newspaper published a story on October 6th about Takaka Primary School Principal Neil Batten’s school newsletter comments attacking the Minister of Education; 

Anne Tolley (Minister of Education) is trying really hard to gag principals who speak out.

“But we all have a right of free speech and I see it as an important role of my position to let parents know what is happening in education on both sides of the political scale.” 

However all this pales in light of developments in the northern part of New Zealand. A principal from Whangarei, Pat Newman, (a former president of the New Zealand Principals Federation) has been interviewed three times on Radio New Zealand, (first interview here) over two separate allegations.

The first allegation is that the MOE in his region are employing people, with little or no background in education, as senior advisers to work with schools to help raise achievement. Two examples that Pat mentioned were a former policeman and a former school dental therapist, who seemingly have the required skills in change management. Quite apparently, knowledge and expertise in education is irrelevant.

What signal does that send? If you’re not sure, it is a re-run of the monetarist ideology of the 1980s and 1990s, where it was believed that processes, policies, procedures and compliance were the keys to ‘raising achievement’.

Those of us who’ve been battling this for 20 years or so will remember, with no fondness, the Education Review Office’s then maniacal focus on ensuring every single major and minor piece of education law and regulation had been addressed in school documentation, through their “Accountability Reports”. Remember?

There was another ideology running in parallel with this at the same time, that which believed that any competent manager could run any organisation, which is why we found people from a range of non-education backgrounds in senior Ministry roles, or even as Education Review Officers, if my memory is correct. Well, here we are again.

This development was also to be expected, given the strong evidence that the government is importing their educational policies from overseas. There are the same stories about people with minimal educational background being appointed to crucial roles. There are also concerns about minimally trained people being appointed as ‘teachers,’ which is also happening in New Zealand and this has been raised as an by secondary school principals.

Pat’s second claim is even more problematic. This is that a former principal, who was suspended from a school, and whose teaching registration has subsequently lapsed, has been appointed as a Student Achievement Practitioner (SAP) to work with designated schools over the whole national standards issue.

The Minister of Education first denied that that any SAP was not from an educational background, having failed to realise that this allegation concerned senior advisers, not SAPs, and in her typical use of ad hominem, tried to deflect the argument by questioning Pat’s credibility, because of connections to the Labour Party.

Subsequently she revised her denial but still failed to address the issue of the suspended principal being appointed as a SAP.

There are only three ways to view this situation.The first, the one used by the Minister, is to question the credibility of the person making the allegations. Given that Pat has a high profile in his area, and that other principals were present at meetings where these allegations were raised, we can rule out this argument out.

That leaves two other possibilities. The first is that the Minister of Education was being honest in her denials, that as far as she knew, what she was saying in response was correct. This immediately opens the barn door to release a number of horses.

  • Is she then saying that she doesn’t know what is happening in the Ministry of Education, which is her responsibility?
  • Or does this reveal that regional MOE offices are free to pursue their own agenda, as long as they achieve ‘compliance?’
  • Or does head office know what is happening, but have kept this from the Minister?
  • Or does the head office not know what is happening out in the regions?

Any of these questions would cast serious doubt on the Minister’s ability to manage and to understand what is happening and likewise about the Ministry of Education.

The third possibility is that the Minister was lying in her denials.

Are there any possibilities I have overlooked?

If not, we now have a situation whether either the Minister’s competence or honesty is in question, or maybe both together. We also have the situation, at least in Northland (and rumour suggests elsewhere as well) where people who have no background in education are being appointed as senior advisers to schools to help raise achievement.

Compounding this is Pat’s information about the suspended principal,who has been appointed as a Student Achievement Practitioner. That immediately raises some more questions, the first of which is the criteria for SAP appointments. Given the ‘thought police’ role that these people will have in ensuring schools are ‘implementing’ the national standards to ‘raise achievement’ one would expect that high degree of professionalism and education competence would be pre-requisites? Apparently not.

Is this the only example of a very inappropriate SAP appointment in New Zealand? This brings us back to questions about the Minister and Ministry of Education raised earlier. This appointment is either acceptable to the Ministry of Education head office, and presumably the Minister, or it is not acceptable at that level, which raises another question immediately. 

  • How and why was an appointment like this made?
    • Was suitable pre-appointed vetting carried out?
    • If not, why?
    • If it was, then why was this appointment made regardless, in the certain knowledge that there would a huge lack of credibility over the appointee’s qualities?
  • Who has the overall responsibility?
    • The Ministry of Education?
    • The Minister?
    • The Prime Minister? (US President Harry Truman’s famous “the buck stops at the top.”)

And the more we think about this, the more questions need to be asked.

The biggest question of all is this one:

Why are minimally or non qualified people being appointed to significant positions in education? 

To summarise:

  • A strong case can be made that the minister is either incompetent, in not knowing what is happening in her portfolio,  or that she is ‘being economical with the truth.”
  • People with no educational background are being appointed to senior adviser positions in the MOE
  • A suspended principal has been appointed as Student Achievement Practitioner.
  • There is a developing pattern that the professionalism of educators is being downgraded.

Whew. A brighter future? Who for?

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What’s all this then?

As I look at events in New Zealand, leading up to the general election on November 26th, and then extend my focus further to the USA, it is very clear that there are strong links between the political agendas in both countries, and especially in education policies. Who is following who? Stupid question, we all know that the USA follows little old New Zealand. In the terms of the very well known, and dare I say, iconic, New Zealand Tui beer advertisement, “Yeah, right.”

So what is happening in education then? We all know that “National Standards” (better phrased as National’s standards, due to their political gestation in some backroom part of the National Party who presently are in government) were developed and imposed to ‘raise achievement’ so that our ‘economy will grow’ and because ‘1 in 5 children are failing’. Much has been written by many that dismantles all these, and related statements, and that shows them for the mindless propaganda and garbage that they really are. These have been covered in detail on Bruce Hammonds’ Leading and Learning blog. Kelvin Smythe has also dismantled these in his typically efficient way on his Networkonnet site, and quick research will turn up many other NZ articles that totally destroy any case for NS.

All to no avail and the lies keep on coming. In spite of government and Ministry of Education obfuscation, more and more evidence is coming to light showing that a national testing regime is being developed, quite arrogantly assuming that National will be returned to power after the election.This is a real return to the tory ‘born to rule’ arrogance that we’ve seen in the past, explicitly and implicitly promoted and supported by the pathetic media in this country, and dependent on apathetic New Zealanders buying into the “John Key” is a nice guy meme and therefore preferring National.

Voting for a political party in a parliamentary democracy because one leader is seen as better than the other, is pure madness. While the trend is this way now, it would be just as mad if Labour produced their version of John Key and sought votes on that basis. Wake up New Zealand, this is not a presidential campaign. I heard far too many principals, teachers, and others, say that they don’t want to vote Labour because of their perceptions of the current leader.What on earth has that got to do with anything?

In 2008 I heard many people (including principals and teachers) say that they were going to vote for National because it was time for a change? Change to what? From what I could determine, many of these people had no idea what change they were voting for. Well they should have researched and listened first, before making that decision.

By all means, vote for the party of your choice because you prefer their policies, wherever that party sits on the political scale. Voting because you like/don’t like a particular leader? Come on, think. If, having read and researched widely, and having considered all points of view, you believe national testing is the best way forward, then fine, vote that way. The right to make an informed vote underpins our democracy.

Wait a moment, if people vote on the basis of their opinion of the leader’s personality (whether that is genuine or carefully crafted – reflect on that) how on earth can that be considered ‘informed’ voting?

This is a very crucial subject to raise. The future of New Zealand education, primary schools in the first instance, and pre-schools subsequently, is on the line on November 26th. The democratic process always leads down roads that a significant proportion of the population won’t like. The danger is that poorly informed (dare I say ignorant?) voters will return a government that results in the destruction of the world renowned New Zealand primary school education system, to be replaced by the same kind of corporate driven madness that is spreading through the USA, and now also starting to appear in England. This is a moral outrage of the highest order.

If you prefer National Party policies overall, but dislike their educational focus, then make your feelings known. You don’t need to change the governing party to change policies. This is not all or nothing. If enough concerned National Party supporters communicate their objections to the current direction of education, then change will come. Easy as that.One hundred thousand letters, to any Prime Minister objecting to a current policy, is bound to shake their cage. That, in essence, is the true power of democracy, not the 30 seconds it takes to tick a couple of boxes once every three years.

Use it or lose it.

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