The Global Testing Culture
reviewed by Christopher B. Crowley & Min Yu - December 19, 2017
William C. Smiths edited book, The Global Testing Culture, examines important and timely issues surrounding both the politics and consequences of large scale testing systems. Central to this work is the assertion that this feature of contemporary education impacts nearly all aspects of education throughout the world. Crucially, this volume points to some of the implicit problems embedded within the increasingly high-stakes nature and standardizing influence of various testing systems. As many of the authors in this volume note, these largely reductive mechanisms for supporting different accountability systems have come to frame notions of common sense regarding appropriate ways to evaluate student learning. In other words, while notions of accountability can be defined and understood in a multitude of ways, in contemporary globalized education contexts the idea of accountability has become largely synonymous with the use of standardized tests.
The inherently reductive notions of student achievement perpetuated through the widespread use of testing throughout the world engenders the assumption that higher performance on these measures, along with the subsequent higher rankings on international tests, are somehow correlated directly with better educational quality. That said, it should already be clear to most readers that student performance on standardized tests is at very best an indirect measure of education quality. Student standardized test scores should perhaps more aptly be understood as a secondary indicator of both student learning and teaching quality. The possibility of drawing potentially misleading conclusions based upon test scores alone ought to be cause for concern, especially given global trends associated with the fetishization of accountability testing. Rather, as the authors seem to suggest, these trends appear to be embedded within and reinforced through policies and practices of stakeholders at multiple international levels.
The books three sections span topics related to what the authors describe as the global testing culture, beginning with a discussion of connections to the international education agenda. In this first section, the authors highlight how actions undertaken by nation-states serve to further policy agendas aimed at maintaining and perpetuating the legitimacy of their own actions. For example, Kijima and Leer examine the Chilean governments participation in international testing and assessment programs and argue that such undertakings were rooted in a desire to appear more accountable to the public. That is to say, the rationale driving Chiles participation in international assessments was at least in part connected to the governments efforts to appear supportive of public education, thereby indirectly bolstering its own legitimacy. Taken together, the chapters in this section highlight some of the many complexities associated with the role of testing, exploring instances in Finland, Denmark, and El Salvador, as well as issues related to PISA tests and Sustainable Development Goals.
The second section of the book considers the politics of accountability and the growing absence of formative testing as a recognized measure of student learning. Here, high-stakes consequences are increasingly tied to the evaluation of students performance on standardized tests. One of the key aspects of this shift is the integral role played by the dissemination and reporting of student scores on large-scale, high-stakes, standardized tests. As Somerset notes in Chapter Ten, the combination of high-stakes consequences with reductive measures of achievement proves detrimental to quality of instruction for children, which perhaps in part grows demand for the types of after-school tutoring described by Orkodashvili in Chapter Twelve of the book.
The third and final section of the book examines the global testing culture in specific national contexts, focusing on Denmark, South Korea, South Africa, and Sweden. Specific to this section is a consideration of how the incorporation of testing into national education systems comes to exist within broader contexts. Chung and Chea, for example, discuss the emergence of punitive models of high-stakes accountability in South Korea, which in turn gave rise to resistance mobilizations on the parts of both families and educators. Yet in spite of some degrees of reform, evaluations of teacher performance remained tied to student test scores, leading to intensified competition and the subsequent deprofessionalization of teaching.
A particularly worthwhile contribution of this edited book is that it brings together in a single volume a variety of studies addressing different aspects of testing and accountability systems throughout the world. At the same time, the topics addressed also provide a foundation for further research seeking to address relevant considerations that are either not included or in need of further investigation. One possible area to be explored or developed in future studies has to do with the need for more critical scholarship in this area of research. Such work might consider problematizing the notion of what a global testing culture is and how it impacts education throughout the world. For example, Carney, Rappleye, and Silova (2012) question whether the methods of the world culture approachespecially the continued commitment to quantitative analysescan tease out the role of mimesis, cognition, norms, or coercion in particular micro-contexts globally (p. 376). Moreover, a key aspect of future research in this area, especially as it relates to attempts to more fully humanize the assessment of student learning, will be the need to articulate more deeply critical perspectives of such trends while simultaneously challenging the implicit agentic functions contained within dominant testing and accountability systems. Meier and Knoester (2017) provide very worthwhile insights along these lines, highlighting the role of descriptive reviews (e.g., Carini & Himley, 2010; Crowley, 2008) as a counterpoint to more common and reductive ways of understanding student learning.
Lastly, while most of the points addressed in this book focus on trends impacting primary and secondary education, there has been an increasing amount of scrutiny and attention paid to teacher education in recent years. What is more, given the recognition that teachers have a powerful impact on student learning, a growing number of stakeholder groups have begun calling for stricter accountability measures related to the testing of preservice teachers and the evaluation of teacher preparation programs. Such trends should not be assumed wholly separate from the concerns raised in The Global Testing Culture and again highlight the need for more research to critically examine both the politics and consequences of these ongoing developments.
Carini, P. F., & Himley, M. (2010). Jennys story: Taking the long view of the child: Prospect's philosophy in action. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Carney, S., Rappleye, J., & Silova, I. (2012). Between faith and science: World culture theory and comparative education. Comparative Education Review, 56(3), 366393.
Crowley, C. B. (2008). Descriptive review of the child: Aisha. Schools: Studies in Education, 5(12), 156162.
Meier, D., & Knoester, M. (2017). Beyond testing: Seven assessments of students and schools more effective than standardized tests. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.