Do International Educational Assessments Help or Hinder an Open Society?

By Bryan Maddox, University of East Anglia

In December 2014, an international ESRC seminar on Education Governance in International Assessments was held at the University of Edinburgh. Seven of the participants were asked to comment on video about the politics and potentials of international assessments in education and their role in educational governance.

Their replies were extremely interesting. For some of the respondents, international assessments offer a new means for states to govern populations. Jenny Ozga suggested that we should critically question the purpose of international educational assessments as a resource of governance and as a mechanism of self-governing. She views the role of academics as to question, disrupt and challenge that process.

Others commented on the intended and unintended use of comparative assessment data and its implications for educational policy and governance. For Antony Verger, international assessments can provide powerful insights into the importance of equity for educational performance. He argued that international assessments tell us that education systems perform better if they are more equitable, and that this has important implications for educational policy. This view was supported by Xavier Bonal, who said that within transparent educational systems, international assessments offer a new source of data to understand educational performance.

Oren Pizmony-Levy argued that we need to know more about the unintended politics and consequences of international assessment. In his video commentary he suggests that the public perception of comparative educational performance may damage public confidence in educational systems. That view is supported by Gita Steiner-Khamsi, whose video commentary questions the consequences of an international imaginary in assessment that sets new, global standards for educational achievement. How do they impact on national standards and policies?

For most of the participants, international assessments and their data represent not only a resource to understand educational systems, but also a complex phenomenon of governance that needs to be better understood. What do international assessments tell us about contemporary modes of governance? How do they impact and inform our ideas about good education? What do they mean for the national and international standards? Their responses suggest that we not only need to understand how international assessments impact on governance, but also cause us to ask how international assessments themselves are governed, and how they are held to account within transparent and democratic political systems.