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The GED and the Rise of Contextless Accountability

by Ethan Hutt — 2014

Background/Context:Policy discussions in the U.S. and abroad have become increasingly studded with reference to the results of international tests like PISA. Unlike most assessments, PISA is not designed to measure whether students have mastered a particular school curriculum but rather provide a measure of students’ ability to meet future challenges irrespective of where in the world they live. Though growing in influence, the concept of a “contextless” form of accountability has an important antecedent in the history of American education: the Tests of General Educational Development (GED), which were developed in the 1940s to assist the transition of American World War II servicemen and women.

Purpose: The purpose of the study is to use the history of the development and subsequent spread of the GED examine the general challenge posed by contextless accountability measures.

Research Design:This study draws on a wide range of primary and secondary sources to present a historical analysis of the development and diffusion of the Tests of General Educational Development.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Noting the strong parallels between the history of the GED and the current popularity of international measures like PISA, this paper examines the history and development of the GED in order investigate the allure, promise, and pitfalls of contextless assessment and accountability. In so doing, this paper illustrates the importance of quantification as a means of creating useful abstractions but also the inherent danger of the perceived certainty of these kinds of metrics. In the decades following the 1940s, the GED retained its reputation as an objective, readily available, measure of high school achievement that could be used in any context and with any population—a task it was never intended or designed to fulfill. Thus, this paper argues, the American experience with the GED offers important lessons and insights in a world where PISA continues the reign of contextless, test-based accountability systems. Namely, that the level of abstraction required to develop these measures makes them ill-suited to inform the kind of specific policy discussion in which they are frequently invoked.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 9, 2014, p. 1-20
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17548, Date Accessed: 3/19/2018 10:17:56 PM

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About the Author
  • Ethan Hutt
    University of Maryland
    E-mail Author
    ETHAN L. HUTT is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Policy and Leadership at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on the historical relationship between schools, the law, and education policy. In particular, it examines the way in which the law has shaped public education in America through the creation of standards and the use of quantification.
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