Garrison on the Origins of Standardised Testing

Mark Garrison analyses the concept of a ‘standard’:

The original meaning of a standard “as formerly used in an army or fleet to mark a rallying point, to signal, or to serve as an emblem” suggests that standards are instances of aims, of ideologies and philosophies. So, for example, the location of the army’s flag (standard) signifies just how far the army has advanced relative to its overall political objective. The symbol that stands for an army also becomes a measure of its success.

Webster’s Dictionary presents the following: Standard, criterion, test, yardstick, touchstone “can designate, in common, any measure by which one judges a thing as authentic, good, or adequate or the degree to which it is authentic, good, or adequate.” Standard “applies to any authoritative rule, principle, or measure used to determine the quantity, weight” or especially “the value, quality, level, or degree of a thing.” If a standard is used to judge the value of a person or thing, it follows that it also must have, or be an instance of, that value. …

Rendering the value of something requires a standard be developed. The “attempt to establish standards” was “legislated,” or decreed by some authority. Even with the earliest colleges in the United States, evaluations were used to see what progress students, and the institutions they attended, were making toward the aims of colleges themselves. … With this understanding, standards concretely embody the aims, and therefore stand as a measure of their realization, and, in fact, point to their realization. It is on this basis that exams function both to direct and to motivate.

The relation of the standard as flag or model to the standard as tool in measurement, assessment, and comparison can be explored by briefly examining the problem of “teaching to the test.” Teaching to the test, on the one hand, seems consistent with the very nature of a standard, for a test presents “a model or example to be followed.” Certainly teachers follow some model. Could arguing against teaching to the test in general be arguing against having a standard, which also may be an argument against having an aim or a philosophy? Is it possible to have an aim without a standard, without some means of judging success? …

Standardization has several meanings in the context of education. One notion is simply that all students are treated equally throughout the testing situation and given the same test. The results of the test are rendered using the same scoring rubric. Hence the second definition of standardization offered by the OED is “To test by a standard.” The aim of standardized educational assessment is to compare students to the same standard (equality before the law). Giving rich and poor kids the same test is a reflection of the egalitarian movement as it developed in the West, and, of course, reveals the limits of that movement. Standardization refers to the successful application of a standard, “the condition in which a standard has been achieved or effectively applied,” according to Webster’s. In this sense it would be hard to have standards without standardization, and it is hard to imagine a standard being “effectively applied” without enforcement. …

Comparability and uniformity are key in that power is required to enforce one standard of judgment, thus making evaluation uniform and hence equitable. … Standardization means comparability on common measures. Such standardization functions to make those who have the standard applied to them accountable to those who set the standard, emphasizing the role standards play in obtaining power. In this sense, standardized norm-referenced tests are monarchical, not modern or universal as the metric system. …

For liberal democratic theory, the process of applying the same standard uniformly to a population enables social differentiation of individuals and groups to take place on a uniform (and hence fair) basis. This type of standardization has medieval roots, since it retains the fixation on social hierarchies. It is a standardization that is not consistent with the modern metric system.

As odd as it may seem to the reader, to offer as critique of standardized testing the observation that all are not provided equal resources prior to testing misses the central role of nature in this theory: resources are a basis for social distinction and hence should not be considered! By applying the same standard to all students, ranked categories of performance can be established, that is, vertical classification on a natural basis. To demand social equality as a starting point eliminates the possibility of vertical classification. Ranking performance of individuals would, by virtue of logic, not result in a hierarchy of groups of human beings, since the original assumption of social equality eliminates this possibility. The equalization of resources makes no sense to the prevailing political theory. Equalization of resources is premised on an entirely different social aim, the project of eliminating social classes. Few Enlightenment thinkers sought social equality, and certainly neoliberals will block any policy that even suggests eliminating social distinction! …

Today the social significance of academic ranking, whether among individuals or subject areas for one individual, is competition. This is the essence of equal opportunity, where the test is constituted as the “equal playing field”; all are treated the same by the test and this is what makes that form of power fair. While equality before the law may be premised on ignoring difference, an equal playing field exists to rank difference (political equality does not equal fair competition or differentiation). Thus, to summarize, standardization has a distinct meaning and function in terms of economic production, one different from the realm of politics under capitalism. And in terms of political conceptions, the rise of bourgeois democracy gives rise to equality before the law and notions of equal opportunity or fair competition. Industrial production requires uniformity; political notions of equal opportunity produce ranked difference by the uniform application of the same standard to individuals or groups. The latter clearly values ranked social difference while the former does not. This is, in fact, one of the key contradictions inherent to capitalism. …

All this suggests that standardization as taken up in education is political in nature, revealed in its connection with social differentiation on the one hand, and the problems surrounding egalitarian projects on the other. Opposing standardization as such without a careful investigation of these issues may be a tacit call for premodern and categorically unequal social relations characteristic of feudal arrangements.


Garrison, Mark J. 2009. A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing. Albany: State University of New York Press. || Amazon || WorldCat


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