Skip to main content

Standardized testing increases social inequalities

Standardized testing at elementary schools brings many risks, says professor Ball from the University of London.

Stephen S. Ball during his lecture visit at The Department of Educational Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University.

The Czech Republic will soon introduce standardized testing in the fifth and ninth grades. Although experience has highlighted the weak points of this system, many politicians feel that this is the way to satisty parents. Stephen Ball talks about how this testing could change the whole school system in the Czech Republic.

The interview was carried out in Brno, on 16 November 2011, during a lecture visit at The Department of Educational Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, The Czech Republic. The interviewers were Milan Pol and Roman Švaříček.

RŠ: I think that in a short period of time the Czech Republic will copy the system of measurements in the fifth and ninth grades, and although there is lot of experience of the weak points of this system, a lot of politicians feel that this is the way we can satisfy parents with results. So how do you think that it will change the system in the Czech Republic?
SJB: I think it will. In England and also in other… in the United Stated, in Australia, and in some countries in the Far East, very significant negativities have been generated as a result of a focus on performance. It works very directly on teachers’ practice and the way teachers think about what they do. So it does change things very dramatically. And one of the common negativities across systems is the way in which it leads schools and teachers to concentrate their efforts on those students who can make the most significant contribution to improvement. So it leads to systematic attention to and systematic neglect of students. And it compounds social inequalities. It also puts enormous stress on teachers. In most of the systems that have high stake testing, there are high levels of teacher stress, teacher illness, teachers who want to leave the profession. And I don’t think politicians recognize those negativities.

MP: Maybe in connection with this, we could get to the curriculum and the issue of its reforming or developing. We have had a new, two-levelled curriculum in this country since 2004/5 that somehow gives guidelines centrally and then provides and even expects – it provides the space for schools and expects them to build their own curriculum. Although it brings a great deal, at the same time it seems to undermine a little the traditional structure of curriculum, bringing new cross-curricular themes and somehow appealing to, let’s say, a more human relation between pupil and teacher. Some critics say the curriculum is becoming empty in this way. And some of them add we have to control it from the outside in order to avoid extremes. What do you think about this?
SJB: Well, in one sense there is a political contradiction between performance control and curriculum control. Performance control is indirect: you set targets or you measure and compare between institutions without intervening in practice.

But specifying curriculum is a more direct form of control, where you are actually intervening in practice and determining practice, creating frameworks for practice. And they don’t necessarily fit together very well in some circumstances because performance has an influence on how the curriculum is organized or prioritized. And one of its effects is to narrow the curriculum very often to focus on those things that are measured and neglect those things that are not measured, and that usually means focus on numeracy and literacy and technical skills and science and neglect of arts and performance, the other kind of performance, drama and things of that kind.

But both kinds of emphases seem again to be moving globally. Many countries are thinking about both the need to test and the need to change their curriculum. And I think this is caught up with global educational discourses around the knowledge economy, around preparing students for a different kind of work life, and in many places there is a kind of shift from an emphasis on knowledge and teaching towards an emphasis on learning and skills.

But I think again there is a lot of … these are things that perhaps again should not be left to politicians to determine. Because I think very often they don’t actually understand what they are doing and they get caught up in the rhetorics of notions like the knowledge economy and then try to read that into what should be happening in schools, whereas in fact there is not necessarily a clear match between the real economy and these rhetorical economies that are talked about by the European Community and the OECD. So I think there is a whole series of policy contradictions around schooling at the moment.

RŠ: Did you find an alternative to the concept of the high-stakes test, something which could have the same or similar results – something that could be as useful for parents as for politicians?
SJB: I think it is actually particularly insistent in countries like England and the US and some of the other countries that have taken these ideas a long way. That it’s actually almost impossible now to speak sensibly about education, to talk about thinking differently about education. The discourse, both the political discourse and increasingly the professional discourse, is so strongly captured within the notions of standards and performance and school effectiveness.

Trying to articulate other versions of what education might be for has become almost impossible. These discourses around performance are so powerful and so exclusive of alternatives that anything else sounds like some kind of nostalgia or romanticism, or just insanity. What we have lost, I think, certainly in England, is any sense that there needs to be a discussion which begins by saying what education is for. What do we want from our education system?

Instead, the idea is we want higher standards. But that is not about what education is for. That’s about how you measure education. But how you measure education has been translated into what education is for. So I find it very difficult to answer that question because I want to say, ‘Well, if we are going to do that, I want to start somewhere else’. I don’t want to start here where you are. I don’t want to debate on your territory. I want to start from the beginning. I want to start again.

RŠ: But on the other hand we have so many people saying, ‘Without a prospering economy, without education serving the economy, we won’t have money for a welfare system, we won’t have money for children with special needs’.
SJB: I think it’s very interesting that again, the European Community has this very powerful commitment to trying to identify the relationship between levels of schooling or education and economic performance. But now, logically, at this moment in time, in Western Europe, that relationship no longer exists, in the sense that the Western economies are not growing.

So we have spent the last, in particular, the last ten years expanding educational provision, getting more students through higher education, raising educational achievement. So how is that reflected in economic growth? It’s not education: it’s the banks that are related and the performance of the financial system that is related to economic growth, presumably, not schools. If there was a relationship, where has it gone? In the UK, in the last year, our economic growth was 0.5%. If there is a relationship between education and economic growth, why is it 0.5% now when three years ago, it was 2.5%? There isn’t any less education now than there was then.

About Stephen J. Ball
STEPHEN J. BALL is a professor of Sociology of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, United Kingdom. His main areas of interest are education policy analysis and the relationship between education, education policy and social classes. Professor Ball is author and co-author of numerous concepts frequently cited by experts in many countries. These include micro-politics of the school, terror of performativity, cycles in educational policy, changes in discourse, philanthropy in education and the education market.

His methodological approach is based in ethnography and includes the use of sociological theories and methods in the analysis of the education market and social class, the application of methods of deconstructive and critical theory to concepts of lifelong learning and privatization of schools, and the application of the theoretical benefits of Foucault, Bourdieu and Bernstein for the analysing of education. Since the 1980s he has published a large number of articles and books, such as The Micro-Politics of the School: Towards a theory of school organization (1987), Education Reform: A Critical and Post-Structural Approach (1994) and The Education Debate: Politics and Policy in the 21st Century (2008).