Testing is not a moral agent

As part of the Twin Peaks seminar, organised by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I was asked to give a 12 minute response to the following provocation.

“Will the growth of large scale assessments and global metrics distract us from a future of reconciliACTION and social justice?”

 There is a particular genius at work in asking an Australian to speak to Excursion 3 – commenting on the commitment to reconciliACTION and social justice in Canada because this a) requires detailed understanding the complex history of Canada as a postcolonial nation and b) given where Australia finds itself in regards to treatment of those seeking asylum, the treatment of our indigenous Australians and too many other examples. Given this, one might well suggest I’d be better served looking after my own backyard.

But I’m an academic which necessarily means I love the sound of my own voice, so I’ll blunder on as is my wont.

I’d like to begin my presentation by stressing that a test is not, and can never be considered, a moral agent. This obvious statement is necessary because it is really common to see the framing of standardised tests as actors that are causing a variety of ills in our schools and classrooms. While I don’t disagree that testing focuses attention in the school and classroom, and there are often undesirable consequences from that focus, I think we need to remember that ultimately it acts as a catalyst, or a surface, where what we think and believe meets what we actually desire. People have to be responsible for social justice, not tests.

I would rewrite the question to ask “How is it that we have convinced ourselves that large scale assessments and global metrics distract us from a future of reconciliACTION and social justice?”

So, when I started to think about the above question, I recognise there is a very strong belief in the education community that tests and metrics stop us being the better version of ourselves that we all aspire too. Better teachers, better academics, better school communities. However, it seems to me that the key words are ‘distract us’. How is it that principals, teachers and education communities that largely share a vision of education as a common good and seek to create the best possible conditions for students to experience a holistic education become distracted?

We might equally ask, how is it that those driving public ambitions for education, the construction of an educated, thoughtful and contributing citizenry is meeting, and being mediated by, the private ambitions that have come to represent the ways that we are governed? If tests and metrics so easily distract us from these public ambitions, I do wonder at the strength of those ambitions.

For example, one way of thinking about this is through the notion of equity, itself often parsed as a social justice concern, that requires a point of comparison to judge whether or not a system is equitable. If we were to ask the question ‘what is the best possible use of ILSA data’ it may be that we decide it is as a tool to enable the measurement of equity (such as the impacts that resourcing, funding, geolocation) have on student achievement. Of course, we can’t really ask this question if we see these tests as powerful moral agents stopping us from doing all the good things.

The point here is that a test could add to the justice within your system (with the obvious caveat that it rarely does). And this is the interesting thing to think about, why is it that after years of testing of education systems we still struggle to translate results into meaningful policy, instead constructing narrow and hostile conversations within our systems about who is winning and losing, who is to blame,

So my questions, intended to provoke, are as follows:

  • Is the reason that we blame tests for a variety of ills because we want to be distracted from the messy business of dealing with our complex histories as postcolonial nations.
  • What is this ‘social justice’ that is so fragile, so easily distracted by the imposition of an assessment regime.
  • What if everyone within the system thinks they are doing social justice in one form or another – from the politicians, to the test designers, to the media reporting on those tests, to the classroom teacher trying to make sense of the results to inform her practice – whose social justice are we talking about here?

We should stop treating tests like moral agents that can define the future. I agree with David Rutkowski’s point about agency, perhaps we’d be well-advised to think about what is enabled, and what we don’t have to do, when we cede our agency to tests and ask whether we really breath a sigh of relief that it is our responsibility we can explain away. The desire for a testing regime is a symptom, not a cause, and it seems to me if you better understand those individual and collective desires at work, you may understand why it is that reconciliACTION and social justice remain distractable.