Assessment Cultures

Historical Perspectives

by Cristina Alarcón López (Author) Martin Lawn (Author)
Edited Collection 430 Pages
Series: Studia Educationis Historica, Volume 3

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Assessment Cultures. Historical Perspectives (Cristina Alarcón / Martin Lawn)
  • Early Modern Cases of Assessment
  • The Organising Principles of Disciple Assessment in the Swedish School Ordinances, 1561–1724 (Christian Lundahl)
  • Individuality in Numbers: The Emergence of Pedagogical Observation in the Context of Student Assessment in the 18th Century (Kathrin Berdelmann)
  • Transnational Perspectives
  • Domesticating International Assessments in Russia: Historical Grievances, National Values, Scientific Rationality and Education Modernisation (Nelli Piattoeva / Galina Gurova)
  • From the Experimental Examination to Educational Evaluation in Colombia: A Study in the Perspective of the History of Concepts, 1930–1970 (Ángela Adriana Rengifo Correa)
  • (Trans)national Trends and Cultures of Educational Assessment: Reception and Resistance of National Testing in Sweden and Norway during the Twentieth Century (Sverre Tveit)
  • Assessment and the Construction of ‘Deviance’
  • Testing the Culturally Deviant of the Welfare State: Greenlandic Children and the Children of Labour Migrants in Danish Minority Education, 1960–1970 (Mette Buchardt / Christian Ydesen)
  • Primary School Attendance or Special Education: Historical Comparative Analysis of Student Files from the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany (Michaela Vogt)
  • National Perspectives
  • High-stakes Assessment Systems as a Historical Barrier in the Struggle for Change in Education: The Case of Chile (María Teresa Flórez Petour)
  • A Thin Line Between Love and Hate: Educational Assessment in the United States (Ethan Hutt / Jack Schneider)
  • The Grundschulgutachten as part of an Assessment Culture: A German Story? (Cristina Alarcón)
  • Assessment and Psychologisation
  • From the Promotion to the Neutralisation of Emotions in Student Assessment: Instituting the Fiche Scolaire for Vocational Guidance in France, 1918–1922 (Philippe Bongrand)
  • Retrospective and Prospective on the Educational Assessment in Post-war Japan (Tanaka Koji)
  • Actors of Assessment
  • Constellations of Actors and Fairness in Assessment in Germany, Sweden and England (Florian Waldow)
  • The Place of the Entrance Assessment in the Building of a Meritocratic Career Path in Argentina, 1863–2013 (Alicia Méndez)
  • The Assessment Culture of International Organisations: “From Philosophical Doubt to Statistical Certainty” through the Appearance and Growth of International Large-Scale Assessments (Camilla Addey)
  • Governing through Assessment Data in the UK during the Late 20th Century: An Extreme Outlier? (Martin Lawn)
  • Authors
  • Series index

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The editors warmly thank all authors for their willingness und patience to embark on this common project. We are specially indebted to Laura Wiesiolek for her painstaking copyediting of the manuscripts. Finally, we warmly thank Marcelo Caruso, Professor of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and co-editor of the Studia Educationis Historica Series (SEH) of Peter Lang Publishing. Without his moral and financial support this publication would not have been possible.

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Cristina Alarcón & Martin Lawn

Introduction: Assessment Cultures. Historical Perspectives

“We are entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification”: this forecast, formulated 40 years ago by Michel Foucault, gives a striking description of the current circumstances.1 There is a boom in national and international assessment tests, and assessment data is used worldwide as a governing instrument of national education systems. Along with this development, scholarly research shows an expanding preoccupation with the topic of assessment. Apart from the more normative research conducted by international organisations, a number of studies deal with the mechanisms, effects, and political gains of International Large-Scale Assessment (ILSA) programs, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)2 and high-stakes testing accountability3 in general, or the benefits of assessment data as a governing instrument.4 Moreover, there has been a decades-long dominance of psychological and educational research studies about types, theories, techniques, effects and effectiveness (including quality criteria) of assessment. In addition, there is philosophical and sociological work on assessment that conceptualises it as an instrument of cultural reproduction (Bourdieu), social control (Basil Bernstein) and a combination of hierarchical supervision and the normalising of sanctions (Foucault).5 But the balance of this research landscape shows that the conditions of emergence, development processes and potential path dependencies of assessment have, in general, ← 11 | 12 → remained rather unnoticed.6 In other words, the fact that assessment practice is as old as school itself has been mostly overlooked. Another deficit refers to the spatial orientation of the studies. Contexts outside of Western Europe (except the USA) are mostly left aside and the cultural conditioning of assessment has not received sufficient appreciation. ← 12 | 13 →

This volume intends to contribute to filling this research gap by investigating both the historicity and culturality of assessment and by focusing primarily on pupil assessment. The term culturality will be tentatively understood as the dynamic of processing and orientation of meaning, developed by certain actors in a specific setting of time and space, sometimes including, but sometimes going beyond the national frame.7 The culturality refers both to their emergence and acceptance, as well as to its changing shape while being transferred.

The term assessment cultures serves as a key term for this volume. It is not a new term by any means. On the contrary, it has been used for at least three decades and in a variety of contexts. For that reason, it has no clear definition either. As early as 1984, the British sociologist Patricia Broadfoot discussed the gradual “replacement of the psychometric assessment culture” with a “psychopedagogic assessment culture” in her book “Education, Assessment and Society.”8 The term ‘assessment cultures’ was in this instance derived from the underlying sub-disciplines of the assessment practices. Other authors from the field of educational research, especially from educational psychology and didactics, have also used ‘assessment culture’ as a proper concept.9 These authors contrast ‘assessment culture,’ positioned within the paradigm of a qualitative-contextualising constructivism, with the term ‘testing culture,’ which they consider to be a reference to behaviourism and the psychometric-quantitative paradigm.10 ← 13 | 14 →

From another point of view, authors have used the term ‘assessment cultures’ for spatial delineations. Hence, they examined national ‘assessment cultures,’ such as the “American testing culture,”11 “Swedish assessment cultures”12 or, like recent studies, the diffusion of a “global testing culture.”13 In addition to that, cross-cultural psychology research studies have used the term “assessment cultures” in relation to specific cultural, philosophical, and religious traditions, such as the Confucian heritage culture.14

Inspired by these works, we understand ‘assessment cultures’ in this volume as the totality of interpretation patterns, symbols, discourses, structures, techniques, systems, and/or practices of assessment that have been developed by actors in the context of a specific space and time. The culturality refers both to their emergence and acceptance, as well as to its changing shape while being transferred. While this volume may not systematically analyse the term, it offers a first overview of its different dimensions, both spatially as well as historically. It examines developments in Western Europe (France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway), Eurasia (Russia), East Asia (Japan), Latin America (Chile, Argentina, Colombia), North America (United States), and in ‘international’ and/or ‘transnational ← 14 | 15 → spaces.’ Moreover, it covers a broad scope, both in terms of timeframe from the early modern period to today, as well as in terms of different political contexts, such as the welfare state, republicanism, (post-) socialism, post-colonialism, decolonisation, and neoliberalism. To the same end, this volume discusses a highly diverse set of actors as target subjects, producers, experts, mediators, translators, and/or distributors of assessment knowledge. These labels apply to pupils, teachers, psychologists, exam boards, international organisations, and school inspection organisations. Finally, the present volume examines a wide range of assessment types (e.g. formative and summative) and assessment instruments that go beyond standardized tests (in all their formats). Thus, several contributions explore and discuss so-called ‘subjective’ assessment instruments that are personally produced by a teacher: written and oral examinations, marks, teacher reports, pupil files, cumulative guidance records, report cards, merit boards, rehearsals, quizzes, and memory exercises.

Despite these diverging contexts, eras, and actors, the different contributions reinforce the idea that assessment is a crucial control feature in modern schooling. At the same time, it constitutes a contentious issue at the intersection of society, politics, economics, and science. Therefore, it constitutes a legal-political field of action and power, e.g. a point of dispute between various politico-ideological factions; a professional field of action, e.g. a motive for conflicts between psychologists and pedagogues, as well as a scientific field of action, e.g. the application of scientific research in the service of certain educational policy and reforms. This volume also confirms the central social function ascribed to assessment, namely the diagnosis, selection, classification, categorisation, distribution, and/or allocation of pupils. It also refers to the intended and unintended effects of assessment, such as gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and ability related normalisation, discrimination and exclusion processes of pupils. The differences between the cases in this volume thus pertain more to the interpretive patterns and techniques that are used to legitimise this control function in discourse, negotiate its political terms, and execute it, as well as to the definition of the ‘ideal pupil’ an assessment instrument is based on. Despite these divergences, several contributions also refer to the transnational emergence and development of a powerful semantic of scientificity, validity, objectivity, and mechanisation related to the technology of standardized testing.

In the first part of this volume, “Early modern cases of assessment,” both authors draw upon a period of time that has so far received little attention with regards to the history of assessment: the early modern period. Both contributions evaluate assessment practices under the teachers’ control using the examples of Sweden (Latin schools) and Germany (a Model school). ← 15 | 16 →

Christian Lundhal reconstructs a specific assessment culture from an epistemic perspective on the basis of an analysis of Swedish school ordinances (from 1561 to 1724), exhibiting elements of an early practice of knowledge assessments. These assessment practices mainly served to (re)produce knowledge, which was supposed to be conducive to the organisation of schooling in two regards: to the pupils’ organisation as well as the organisation of learning processes. The aforementioned assessment practices contained both summative and formative elements and, in the context of Lutheran Protestantism, focused on the development of language (speech and writing), memory and judgement skills, and the promotion of specific spiritual values.

Kathrin Berdelmann looks at practices of pupil observation and assessment developed at a model school, the Dessauer Philantropin, at the end of the 18th century. Berdelmann shows how this observation practice developed into an explicit pedagogic category, as well to an institutionalised precondition for other forms of assessment, which followed the principles of individualisation and standardisation. Using the example of this model school, Berdelmann reveals first signs of a ‘modern’ assessment culture based on meritocracy as its guiding principle.

The contributions of the second part, “Transnational perspectives,” investigate a specific problem: how do national actors in their national contexts filter, adapt, or even reject certain international discourses, practices, instruments, and principles of pupil assessment?

The contribution by Nelli Piattoeva & Galina Gurova analyses the reception of ILSA and their underlying “testing culture” in the Russian context during the last decades. Based on the conceptual framework of discursive institutionalism, and references to historic developments in the Soviet era, the authors show how national assessment experts re-contextualise or make relatable the so-called testing culture, especially international assessment data to the local context, and use it strategically for the conception of specific policy proposals.

Following the perspective of history of concepts, the contribution by Ángela Adriana Rengifo Correa reconstructs the transformation of assessment practices and their underlying concepts such as “experimental examination” and “educational evaluation” in Colombia over the course of the 20th century. Rengifo Correa shows how the reception of the New School’s international discourse, experimental psychology, and the economic discourse of developmentalism led to a transition from an assessment culture of oral examinations to a testing assessment culture.

Sverre Tveit analyses specific trends (the meritocracy trend, the accountability trend, the assessment for learning trend) with regards to the research and ← 16 | 17 → education politics of assessment during the 20th century, from a transnational-comparative perspective. He also identifies two different paradigmatic assessment cultures: the “testing culture” and the “examination culture”. Lastly, he analyses Sweden and Norway as examples of adoption and resistance dynamics of transnational assessment practices and discourse.

The part entitled “Assessment and the construction of ‘deviance’ ” investigates the central selection and allocation role that is assigned to assessments in the context of modern schooling. Both contributions focus on the normalisation practices that are linked to this selection role in order to discuss the construction of the “deviant pupil.”

On the one hand, the contribution by Christian Ydesen & Mette Burchardt discusses the connection between the construction of “cultural deviance”, and the development of certain assessment practices and cultures in the context of the Danish welfare state during the 1960s and 70s. They reconstruct two cases of state-led interventions on populations in the “inner periphery”: school children in Greenland (a former Danish colony) and the children of labour migrants living in metropolitan Denmark. The authors show how educational testing was used in both cases as a “cultural marker” for the purpose of categorisation, selection, and distribution of these children and legitimised using the argument of “cultural neutrality” (objectivity).

On the other hand, the contribution by Michaela Vogt focuses on the construction of “ability deviance” from a comparative perspective, with regards to the special education selection process in primary schools in the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic from 1950 to 1970. She analyses professional evaluations (Profesionelle Gutachten) as source material in order to define whether the schooling decisions about the ability to attend primary school or the need for special education were made consistently, or whether they instead reveal the existence of a diachronic shift for both German states, in that the special education selection process tended to assess a pupil’s social context rather than their performance and learning behaviour.

The fourth part of this volume, “National perspectives,” investigates national paths or developments of assessment practices, instruments, and discourse, and takes a look at longer historic periods of time.

María Teresa Flórez Petour analyses the Chilean high-stakes assessment systems from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st century, uncovering their political and ideological dimension. Flórez Petour’s central argument is that these systems functioned as a historically constructed “power device” that has hindered change towards more holistic, child-centred, emancipatory ideas in ← 17 | 18 → education. She also shows that the underlying assessment culture of these systems adopts a functional view of society, and has therefore always preferred certification and the social purposes of assessment to pedagogical aims.

Jack Schneider & Ethan Hutt address the reconstruction of a specific national assessment culture of the United States from the end of the 18th century to the 21st century, its deep historic roots and the ideologies and beliefs linked to them as well as their dominant practices: A to F grading and standardized testing. The authors’ central argument is that this assessment culture is characterised by highly contentious and partly opposing principles: consumerism and entrepreneurialism, merit and social mobility, open-access egalitarianism and local control.

Cristina Alarcón investigates the central function that primary school reports (Grundschulgutachten) have been assigned in the context of the selection procedure between primary and secondary schools for more than 90 years in Germany: the assessment of a child’s personality. Based on the analysis of regulations, teachers’ guides, and examples of reports, Alarcón tries to retrace the roots of the report, explain its historic persistence and ultimately analyse it as part of a specific German assessment culture.

The fifth part of the book, “Assessment and psychologisation,” contains two contributions discussing a concrete assessment instrument: “report cards” serving guidance purposes. Both contributions refer in a broader sense to the process of colonisation of assessment practices by psychological categories, methods and instruments, as well as to the growing involvement of psychological experts in school assessments.

Philippe Bongrand’s contribution focuses on the rise and fall of the fiche scolaire assessment instrument in France: a pupil report card created by psychologists that teachers were asked to fill in starting in the early 1920s as a form of career guidance. The fiche scolaire was conceived as an alternative to marks and examinations, and aimed to assess pupils mostly based on psychological criteria. Bongrand discusses the contrast between the assessment culture the fiche scolaire was based on, and the assessment culture that has been dominant until today. While the former had the aim of assessing a pupil’s personality, interests, and preferences, the latter stands for a summative, quantified, subject matter-based assessment.

Koji Tanaka focuses on the development of the “cumulative guidance record” in relation to educational psychology research in the context of Post-war Japan. Tanaka analyses discussions surrounding assessment theory, which have existed as a dialogue with the theories and discourse of the United States, and in particular with the emergence of different perspectives on pupil assessment, such as “relative ← 18 | 19 → assessment” connected to “intra-individual assessment” during the 1960s and “objective-referenced assessment” during the 1970s.

The sixth part represents a summary of contributions that focus on the “actors of assessment,” such as teachers, pupils, exam boards, International Organisations, and school inspection organisations. The first two contributions also take up the controversial link between assessment and meritocracy.

Florian Waldow discusses the connection between the “fair” organisation of assessment systems and the realisation of a meritocratic guiding principle. To that end, he conducts a comparative analysis of the assessment systems of Germany, Sweden and England, focusing on the conceptions of fairness that are embedded in the rules and regulations of these assessment systems and in particular on the constellations of actors (teachers and exam boards) stipulated by those rules. Waldow shows that the legitimacy of assessment systems as well as the underlying conception of fairness is characterised both in a cultural-contextual and an actor-specific way. Waldow also identifies two opposing poles that can be used to define the specific and strongly path-dependent assessment cultures of these three countries.

Alicia Méndez investigates the selective admission regimes of a paradigmatic Argentinian secondary school in connection with the construction of a “meritocratic” elite: the Colegio Nacional de Buenos Aires. Based on field observations, interviews, autobiographies, a prosopographic study, and socio-demographic data, Méndez shows how the socio-cultural characteristics of the pupil body would vary on the basis of changing admission regimes. Covering a span of 150 years, Méndez’s analysis also reveals that this admission regime underlies a traditional national assessment culture in which the assessment of written examinations has a prominent role.

Camilla Addey’s contribution focuses on the actor of “international organisations,” such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), as well as non-profit international scientific societies like the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) over a period from the 1950s to 2016. Her contribution aims to analyse the change in their assessment cultures. To that end, Addey focuses on the underlying procedures, principles, and goals of administrating international pupil assessment tests and data. She illustrates how organisations like IEA and OECD went from acknowledging difference through in-depth studies of individual countries, to large-scale worldwide comparisons of countries along standardized metrics. The ← 19 | 20 → 1990s stand out as a decisive assessment culture shift that had far-reaching consequences for educational policy, practice, and research.

Ultimately, Martin Lawn’s analysis refers to the current English context, specifically to the problem of how produced assessment data (performance data for every pupil) has become a major way of governing education systems. In England, during the late 20th century, this moved from being personal information about pupils to a major public and commercial arena in which significant performance data is used to order and control the education system. Assessment data now means a complex and changing set of work relations between the centre, the region (or city), and the schools. This new governing landscape is described and its consequences are explored during the 2000s when a new industry of assessment was created.


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Biographical notes

Cristina Alarcón López (Author) Martin Lawn (Author)

Cristina Alarcón is Research Associate and Lecturer at Humboldt-Universität Berlin. Her research interests focus on transnational and comparative history of educational and psychological knowledge, and on history of assessment and experts. Martin Lawn is an Honorary Professor at the University of Edinburgh and Fellow of the Academy of Social Science [UK]. His research interests focus on transnational histories, history of assessment and educational sciences as well as on the Europeanization of education


Title: Assessment Cultures