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?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s