Standardized testing - unmasking a threat to democracy

Scientific Essay, 2006
11 Pages, Grade: A



The purpose of this paper is to deconstruct the debate surrounding educational reforms concerned with standardized testing. The theoretical framework I will use to analyze this debate is based on theories of democracy and capitalism and will hopefully unmask the real motives of the various stakeholders involved in the development and implementation of standards reform; that they are not concerned primarily with student learning. Additionally, I will demonstrate that the deleterious effects of this shift in the assessment paradigm, and schooling in general are, unfortunately, of dyer consequence to our democratic state.

Standardized Testing: Unmasking the Real Debate

“What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge and not knowledge in pursuit of the child." George Bernard Shaw

Whether you are directly involved in education or not, the concept of standardized testing should resonate. This is probably due, in large part, to the media attention that the debate surrounding it has received in recent years (Hursh & Martina, 2004). In this debate, rarely do the arguments submerge below the deleterious effects of the testing method in its immediate context. This is disturbing as the real danger lies deep within. In this paper I will analyze the debate on standardized testing in terms of unmasking the real motivating factors for such extensive and enduring discourse, and the steadily increasing use of the assessment method in our schools. The argument I forward is one which suggests the fundamental debate is between corporate elites, supporting standardized education as a means to realizing their agendas, on the one hand, and liberal educators and those who are like minded advocating democratic education on the other. Although there are a lot of positives and negatives associated with standardized testing, my purpose here is to expose only those elements directly related to the chosen socio-economic lens, and not to argue for or against standardized testing merely as a method of measurement.

From the beginning there has existed a debate over the purpose of education. This debate is essentially reduced to determining what the principle aim of education should be. Theorists such as Dewey have put forward the idea that education is void of an inherent objective or aim and that we, the people, must decide what we want society to be and, based on this notion form policy to define public education (Ross, 2004). Of course what we want society, more specifically its citizens to be then becomes the subject of debate. This has generally been centered on some concept of forming a real democracy with full and active citizens, from one perspective, and to create efficient and well trained workers from another (Hyslop-Margison, 2005).

What is Education for Democracy?

Bertrand Russell, as well as Dewey, advocated strongly for education to be democratic and liberal. By this he meant that education should “give a sense of the value of things other than domination, to help create wise citizens of a free community, to encourage a combination of citizenship with liberty, individual creativeness…” (As quoted in Chomsky, 1994). Schooling should create free and wise citizens who can criticize across the disciplines and who can uphold democracy by authentically participating in the governing of their communities (As quoted in Chomsky, 1994). As Amy Gutmann (1987) points out in her book Democratic Education, liberal learning is needed to provide citizens with a critical breadth and depth of knowledge in order to understand the inner workings of their community; the very fabric of society. Without this understanding, achieved from critical liberal education, one cannot participate in government authentically or actualize fully engaged citizenship. In order to attain agency, crucial to full citizenship, students must be exposed to “on-going critical inquiry which is the hallmark of intellectual virtue and liberal learning” (Hyslop-Margison, 2005, p. 42). You can only truly recognize and understand injustice in society when you are able to draw upon a broad base of liberal knowledge, such as the corpus of classical texts which elucidate various social struggles and their possible outcomes. Without this social injustice may go unnoticed, placing the whole of democracy at risk.

What is Standardized Testing?

Surprisingly, given all the debate, a definition of standardized testing is not easily pinned down. Stephen Sireci (2005) refers to standardized tests as those in which the “test content is equivalent across administrations and that the conditions under which the test is administered are the same for all test takers” (pg. 113). Although he provides a reasonable concept of standardized testing, it is interesting to note that Sireci goes on to suggest that this is the very reason why standardized tests provide “a level playing field” (pg. 113). This is problematic as so much of educational philosophy and policy dictates that all students are not the same and must be instructed in differentiated ways to enable them to reach their full potential (Wisconsin Education Association Council, 1999). Thus, this definition of standardized testing is actually a clear argument against this form of measurement provided we accept the widely held belief in differentiated instruction. Additionally, standardized tests are also characterized, in practice, as tests which are not written by the teacher who instructed the learning (Wikipedia, 2006). This is problematic as a personal context is required to properly assess learning, assuming that measurement in education should evaluate learning, as a process of growth, and not simply skill sets. For example, the results of a prior learning assessment would be needed to then judge how much the student actually learned from the instruction in question. This situation required both the student and teacher to be present in the learning and again involved in the measurement or testing. This is not possible with standardized testing. Common standardized tests include the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test), GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test), LAST (Law School Admissions Test) and many state public school tests, for example, The Alabama Literacy Test or the OSSLT (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test).

Why is Capitalism Interested in Schooling?

Capitalists and the business elite become interested in education most noticeably post World War I when a second aim or potential for education arose from the need for a strong and skilled workforce. This is when vocational training emerged as a dominant element of public education. From the capitalist perspective workers were needed to fuel the post war industrial economy. In Canada, the more obvious aim was to keep pace with American economic development. From the perspective of the workforce, they were in need of jobs returning from war and needed training to successfully integrate into this new technical industrial economy (Hyslop-Margison, 2005). In fact, the business community was so concerned with producing a workforce that as early as 1834 a secret meeting regarding a shift in educational focus was held.

On the night of June 9, 1834, a group of prominent men "chiefly engaged in commerce" gathered privately in a Boston drawing room to discuss a scheme of universal schooling...Even though the literacy rate in Massachusetts was 98 percent, and in neighbouring Connecticut, 99.8 percent, the assembled businessmen agreed the present system of schooling allowed too much to depend upon chance. It encouraged more entrepreneurial exuberance than the social system could bear. (Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 2006)

As post World War I technical industry became entrenched it also naturalized the idea that education would be for training people to cope in this new economy. David Labaree (1997) refers to this aim in education as social efficiency and later David Hill (2004) renamed it the corporate agenda for education. This model assumes; what could be more useless in this new time of highly technical economic production than a liberal education? Sheer logic was on the side of capitalism in making this fundamental shift in the educational paradigm appealing to the public. Education would come to be seen as an investment in building a strong and skilled workforce which would in turn pay handsome dividends to all (Labaree, 1997).

Capitalism, much later, also recognized a second potential aim in education; to make profit in education itself. That is, capitalism would transform the very structure of education to mirror the hierarchy in society and cash in on the student’s race to the top. Dave Hill (2004) terms this aim the capitalist agenda in education. In this model schooling becomes more and more about selling credentials and less and less about learning or training. These credentials, or what Collins (1979) calls “cultural currency” (original emphasis), by way of degrees and diplomas, can then be exchanged later for social position. David Labaree (1997), on the other hand, refers to this aim as social mobility. Labaree defines the process as students climbing the educational ladder, which mirrors the capitalist societal hierarchy, collecting enough cultural currency to can reach the upper echelons. It becomes understood that all one needs to reach success in this hierarchical society is effort to attain enough credentials. This is more commonly known as attaining the American Dream.

Why Use Standardized Tests?

Standardized testing was quickly identified as being useful in achieving both of the capitalist aims; social efficiency and social mobility. Standardized tests would not only prove useful in defining desired worker abilities and choosing workers, but the tests would also prove the “most powerful means of controlling what is done in the school” (Charles Mann, as quoted in Fleury, 2004, p. 112). Standardized tests and “standardized curriculum and more frequent testing also effect more efficient surveillance and control of teachers’ and students’ behaviour” (Wien & Dudley-Marling, 1998, p. 411). This control is necessary to make sure schooling is achieving the social efficiency aims desired by the capitalist elites, and is not going astray; something academic freedom, if permitted, could easily allow.

Standardized testing also proved crucial in setting up the educational hierarchy that would mirror, and thus perpetuate, the capitalist societal hierarchy. Sandra Mathison (2004) states that “There is ample evidence that suggests [standardized] achievement tests are better predicators of parental income than anything else”. She later states that “the late twentieth century [is] the context for the use and development of assessments that differentiate individuals for the allocation of scarce resources such as jobs, postsecondary education, and scholarships” (pg. 6). Therefore, based on these scholars, we can sum up standardized testing as indispensable for determining who should leave school and assume or inherit the top positions within society; fulfilling the aim of social mobility as defined by Labaree (1997). Essentially, Standardized testing is a sorting mechanism that is sensitive to rewarding certain classes, races, and even people with particular ideological dispositions; making sure those at the top believe in the current class distinctions and ways of maintaining and perpetuating them.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Standardized testing - unmasking a threat to democracy
Concordia University Montreal
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
422 KB
Standardized, Testing, Standardized Testing, Testing and Democracy, Democratic Education, Michael Ernest Sweet
Quote paper
Graduate Student Michael Ernest Sweet (Author), 2006, Standardized testing - unmasking a threat to democracy, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Standardized testing - unmasking a threat to democracy

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free