Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Political Aspects of Assessment

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_392

How a society selects, classifies, distributes, transmits and evaluates the educational knowledge it considers to be public, reflects both the distribution of power and the principles of social control (Bernstein 1971, p. 47);

You get what you assess; you don’t get what you don’t assess; you should build assessment towards what you want…to teach… (Resnick and Resnick 1992, p. 59).


The above quotations demonstrate that politics, and political choices, infuse and permeate every aspect of assessment design and use. Everything that a society values cannot be taught in school, choices about curriculum content and teaching methods have to be made. In turn, everything that is taught cannot be assessed; again, choices have to be made, samples have to be constructed (via test items of various kinds). Thus what is assessed represents, and in practice comes to be regarded, as the most important elements of educational experience and curriculum content. This is sometimes known as the “backwash” effect, whereby what is assessed narrows and drives the curriculum in particular directions. However, Bernstein’s argument goes beyond this. It is not that assessment inadvertently impacts on the curriculum and students’ educational experiences, but rather the selections that are made about what to assess very specifically reflect what the most powerful in society value – and it is those values which influence and pervade the school curriculum. In advanced economies, this is academic knowledge and, to a lesser extent, specific skills and capabilities. This insight can be used to analyze the political implications of assessment (“evaluation” in Bernstein’s terms) in relation to social control – who gets to learn what and with what consequences. As the old aphorism has it, “knowledge is power” and control of access to knowledge is a powerful tool for the control of populations. However, this insight can also be used to drive the curriculum and schooling in particular directions. Thus Resnick and Resnick (1992) take the same broad insight and, in a sense, turn it on its head – if assessment is going to influence the curriculum and educational experiences so profoundly, then let’s use it positively, to best effect, and not simply accept the taken-for-granted values of the powerful. Build better assessments, and you will lead education in the direction you want it to develop. Either way, the political implications of assessment are significant – influencing what is taught, how it is taught, by whom, and to whom.

Perhaps because so much development and analysis is undertaken in the relatively closed worlds of psychometric research and test agencies, assessment is often thought of as a largely technical aspect of educational systems. Assessment is designed and used to measure the capabilities and achievements of students and report on these to the students themselves, teachers, parents, employers, university admissions officers, and other users of test and examinations results. Here the argument is that assessment simply reflects what is taught and learned, it does not determine it. That examination results may carry very significant consequences for students is not often regarded as a political issue per se, though the uneven distribution of results across cohorts and social groups (for example, by social class, gender, and race) may raise political concerns about economic efficiency and social mobility. Rather, assessment is seen as a politically neutral way of measuring achievement and distributing social and economic life chances – distributing life chances on academic merit.

More recently, test results have begun to be used to evaluate schools, teachers, and even whole school systems through national and international testing regimes such as National Curriculum Assessment (NCA) in England, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the USA, National Assessment Plan Literacy And Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia, the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) in New Zealand, and international comparative test organizations such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA, run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD). Even here however, with tests carrying potentially severe consequences for schools and teachers, the tests themselves are largely regarded as technical and neutral mechanisms for identifying the outcomes of education. Test results may feed into political decision-making, but tests and testing are not thought of as political in and of themselves; rather it is argued that they provide information for decision-making (OECD 2013). It can also be argued that test results focus attention on the outcomes of education, on the quality of what is produced, rather than the inputs, with this being especially important in developing countries (Pritchett et al. 2013). But taking a small number of outcomes measures (usually tests in language, maths, and possibly science) as indicative of the quality of an education system as a whole risks the corruption of the indicator as schools and teachers focus on teaching to the test (“you get what you assess”). Thus as test scores go up, educational quality may not necessarily be improved; it may even go down, as teaching to the test narrows the curriculum and the educational experience of students, even very successful students (and perhaps especially the very successful students). There is extensive evidence of this happening in the USA and UK (Torrance 2011). It is a trade-off that may be worth accepting in the short term in developing countries where the baseline quality of educational provision is still low, but not in advanced economies where schools must produce much more than a limited range of test scores. Furthermore, the distribution of life chances to individuals and the distributing or withholding of resources to and from particular schools and teachers are inherently political activities. For example, national testing and international comparisons routinely now involve redirecting public funding to successful schools and withdrawing it from unsuccessful schools through restructuring plans and even closure of so-called failing schools. However, it could equally well be argued that comparatively unsuccessful schools, working in difficult circumstances, require more resource rather than less.

Historically, perhaps for a period of a hundred years or more from the 1860s to the 1960s, assessment was used to categorize, select, and certificate minorities of students: to identify and direct small numbers of the supposedly “feeble minded” to special institutional provision and to select small numbers of students for elite education and subsequently to certificate their academic achievements. Education was a scarce good, access to educational opportunities were limited, and educational assessment was largely concerned with selecting individuals for those limited opportunities: for access to an elite secondary education and access to university. In turn, grades and certificates were awarded to individuals at the end of particular courses of study, as they progressed through the education system. So the focus of assessment was on identifying individual achievement and particularly on selecting and certificating individuals. In so doing, this process functioned to identify and legitimate on grounds of educational merit, the identification of the next cohort of suitably qualified and socialized personnel for economic and social leadership roles in society. Selection and certification was done by relatively small elite groups, of relatively small elite groups, for relatively small elite groups and was underpinned by reference to the idea that innate intellectual ability was distributed along a normal distribution curve within a population (Sutherland 1984). Thus assessment developed as a political technology of exclusion, with school leaving examinations in particular, constituting a key mediation point in the articulation of schooling with the economy. The selection, tracking and progression of students through the education system, and the certification of their achievements, or lack of them, have functioned very directly to prepare, filter, and allocate groups of students into vocational and academic tracks and to identify particular individuals for specific roles and employment opportunities.

More recently, the focus and purpose of assessment has changed. The intellectual field and policy context now assumes that all, or at least the overwhelming majority, of the population can and should be educated to the highest level possible. The focus is now on education for all and the development of a fit-for-purpose assessment system as a system, i.e., as part of an integrated approach to national human resource development. The imperative now is to treat education as an economic investment, both on the part of the individual student and on the part of government. How and why these changes have occurred could be the subject of a much longer chapter. Suffice to say that we now live in a world of intense global economic competition and mass movements of capital and labor. Unskilled mass production and employment opportunities have virtually vanished from developed economies, and the emphasis now is on education for the so-called knowledge economy and as a form of investment in human capital. Governments now need to develop assessment mechanisms which harvest and utilize the capabilities of the majority of their populations, rather than dispense with them, and thus assessment is now developing as a technology of inclusion. It is expected to accurately identify and report the individual educational achievement of the vast majority of the student population; in turn, such measures are also expected to accurately evaluate the effectiveness of individual schools (and sometimes teachers), while parallel international measures compare, contrast, and evaluate the quality and effectiveness of whole national systems of education.

Furthermore, the field of assessment studies has itself expanded and become much more sophisticated, exploring the relationships between assessment, teaching, and learning. Assessment is now expected to support and underpin the process of learning, not just measure the outcomes of learning. So, again, the expectations for the field are vastly more ambitious than was once the case and the political implications are multiplied as assessment comes to pervade every aspect of the teaching-learning process via formative approaches to assessment and not just through a generalized control of the curriculum. While the development of a more inclusive system may appear to be a more benign use of assessment, it remains a political use and, moreover, such inclusion attributes success and failure, and devolves responsibility for them, very much down to the efforts of the individual student, teacher, and indeed parent (via their support for their children’s learning), rather than locating success and failure at the level of institutional processes and selection procedures, as was the case previously (Torrance 2011, 2015).

So, assessment intersects with every aspect of an educational system and indeed of a social system more generally: at the level of the individual student and teacher and their various experiences (positive or negative) of the assessment process, at the level of the school or similar educational institution and how it is organized and held to account, and at the level of the educational and social system with respect to what knowledge is endorsed and which people are legitimately accredited for future economic and social leadership. Assessment controls the curriculum and, in turn, the work of teachers, and the educational experiences of students more generally; it allocates life chances and opportunities (or the lack of them) to individuals and in turn legitimates the idea of social and economic stratification on grounds of measured achievement and academic merit, and it renders diverse school systems commensurate and comparable with each other via international test programs (Lingard et al. 2013).

It might be argued that we need some mechanism to identify achievement, to mediate social and economic competition for scarce opportunities such as senior technical, administrative, and managerial positions, and indeed to allocate such opportunities to those best equipped to succeed and thereby benefit society as well as the individuals themselves. But much empirical evidence and theoretical analysis suggests that assessment processes and outcomes reproduce social and economic inequalities by reflecting the culture and values of the already successful, rather than identifying capability and achievement irrespective of social background (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977; Cassen and Kingdon 2007). This is also the implication of Bernstein’s argument concerning the distribution of power – already powerful social groups control the content and procedures by which “merit” is defined. Not surprisingly it reflects their own accomplishments and behaviors. More recently, it has been suggested that the development of new technologies and globalized competition is rendering even the traditional success of the “educated middle classes” vulnerable to obsolescence as many middle management and administrative tasks become ensconced in computer programs rather than the roles of employed individuals (Lauder et al. 2012). However, while such developments may threaten traditional definitions of social and economic success, they do not challenge the political role of assessment. Quite the reverse, they will intensify the political role of assessment in further rendering individuals responsible for determining their own futures (Torrance 2015).

Having said this however, it is also important to recognize that assessment is engaged in voluntarily and is not simply imposed on students and teachers in some arbitrary or conspiratorial fashion, though some specific versions of assessment are indeed imposed on school systems by government. Assessment in general is a ubiquitous feature of modern education systems precisely because different educational actors have an interest in developing and working with assessment. Examiners and test developers produce assessments to sell into an educational market (and an increasingly international and globalized market at that, selling tests is a multimillion dollar industry); teachers use assessment for purposes of motivating and controlling students in the classroom; and students submit to assessment because of the potential social and economic benefits that success can bring. Here we see both the political economy and the micropolitics of tests and testing at work – with test agency profits and people’s individual careers and career opportunities being very specifically promoted or inhibited by particular approaches to and uses of assessment.

So, the political aspects of assessment turn on our interpretation of some key questions and revolve around the role they play in controlling the overall trajectory and productivity of education systems. Does assessment merely measure what has been learned, or control what is to be learned, and how it is to be taught? Does assessment merely manage entry to the labor market and select and certificate the best equipped for the job or does it legitimate such selection by reference to academic merit while masking the role that power and culture play in reproducing social and economic inequality? Do international testing programs such as PISA merely provide useful comparative evidence for national educational decision-making or do they deflect attention from the political nature of the interventions planned and the resource allocation choices that are then made, with assessment effectively substituting for policy and creating the policy problem it purports to address? Moreover, do international testing programs render national systems commensurate, comparable, and hence open to private commercial exploitation as it becomes easier and more profitable to sell the same test and textbook to 15 or 20 countries rather than just into one national system?

How we answer these questions will determine our position on the political aspects of assessment. Our answers will reflect, at least in part, our position within an education system, within the policy/practice nexus, and effectively turn around whether or not we can envisage more valid and equitable approaches to assessment, certification, and selection being developed. There is no shortage of advocates for other approaches to assessment – approaches which would involve a far greater range of educational outcomes being pursued, including the development of practical skills and abilities and the application rather than just the recall of knowledge. These could be pursued by developing more practical assessments of “authentic” tasks undertaken in situ and reported through various forms of “profiles” or “records of achievement” compiled over time by students themselves (Torrance 1995). Reviewing such approaches is beyond the remit of this entry, except to say that developing such approaches would still reflect the political aspects of assessment, but involve different political choices being made and different political and economic goals being pursued.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Manchester Metropolitan UniversityManchesterUK