Reconciling paradoxes of educational assessment and inclusive education – A comparative view

By Christian Ydesen, Alison L. Milner, Tali Aderet-German, Ezequiel Gomez Caride, and Youjin Ruan

Paradoxes of Educational Assessment and Inclusive Education

Educational assessment and inclusive education are two global policy agendas.

The global reach of these agendas has been facilitated by the work of two key international organisations – the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) – and their respective policy instruments.

At a superficial level, it could be said that these agendas have similar goals. For instance, OECD and UNESCO policy actors might argue that their prioritisation is motivated by a desire to create fairer, more equitable, and more socially just education systems, which recognise the right of every child and young person to a quality, inclusive education.

But while synergies are apparent, dissonances also occur.

First, educational assessment and inclusive education are often treated separately at the policy level, with only minimal reference to the other agenda.

Second, and despite the above, these two agendas do not operate in discrete isolation from each other. Indeed, there are many intersections between them in policy and practice. And it is within these intersections that paradoxes can arise, which not only have implications for their enactment at the school level, but also challenge their overall education purpose.

From the global to the local: Understanding the paradoxes in context

The paradoxes of educational assessment and inclusive education were a key focus of our international comparative research in Argentina, China, Denmark, England and Israel. This research has recently been published in a monograph titled “Education Assessment and Inclusive Education”.

Through document analysis and semi-structured interviews with policymakers and practitioners, our research team sought to understand how the phenomena of “assessment” and “inclusion” – in the broadest terms – were understood, interpreted and experienced at the national, local and school levels. For while global in their reach, these agendas have long been an educational concern of national and local policymakers and school practitioners.

However, in our research, “context” went beyond a governance space or bounded geographical location. For individual actors’ understandings of “assessment” and “inclusion” – and the extent to which they themselves perceive paradoxes within and between the two agendas – are constituted through the interweaving of personal, professional, historical, political, social, cultural and organizational contexts. These contexts emerged inductively through the thematic analysis of policymakers’ and practitioners’ experiences and perspectives.

Intersections and paradoxes

Our data analysis identified three key assemblages through which the educational assessment and inclusive education agendas intersected.

  1. ‘Our examination system implies inclusion’

The first assemblage relates to the political economy of education.

The political-economic ideological context has meaning for the role and status that assessment and inclusion occupy in each education system. This then determines whether and, if so, how the agendas intersect. For instance, a policy trend in recent years – motivated by economic as much as social goals – has been a move to include children with special educational needs in mainstream education, with implications for assessment.

In China, “inclusion” is often considered unproblematic within the context of human capital theory, which underlines the importance of student academic outcomes to their future place in the labour market and national prosperity and competitiveness in a global economy.Indeed, in this examination-oriented education system, participation in assessments is considered a form of inclusion:

I think that our examination system implies inclusion. …Starting from this year, students can choose any subject from the remaining subjects (except the three main subjects). If a student particularly likes history and politics, but does not like geography, it doesn’t matter anymore. Now he or she can choose two arts subjects, plus a science subject (to be assessed). This fits students’ special needs. (Principal, China)

Paradoxically, though, students with special needs are often excluded from mainstream education, examinations, and assessment data in China.

In England, the assessment and inclusion agendas have been operationalised within a market-oriented education system as a means to demonstrate educational success at the school level. Paradoxically, however, the publication of assessment performances can increase social segregation when middle-class parents use these data to select the “best-performing” schools for their children. In Israel this negative impact of the publication of national test results has led to the phenomenon of “off-rolling” in which students with special educational needs and students with low achievement are often encouraged to stay at home on the day of the test or the school excludes their tests from the overall scores of the school.

By contrast, in Argentina, the assessment and inclusion agendas occupy antagonist ideological positions; a left- or right-leaning political orientation can determine whether you are defined as an inclusion advocate or an assessment defender.

Paradoxically, these antagonisms are not evident at the school level, where inclusion takes precedence.

2. ‘It is not enough to say “I think”’

The second assemblage relates to the nexus between educational research, policy and practice.

The production and selection of knowledge, data and evidence have implications for what or who is considered meaningful, problematic or in need of interventions at state, school or classroom level. Headteachers and teachers highlighted the importance of data to evaluating the individual learning needs of students. Conversely, municipal civil servants in Denmark and China emphasised their significance to quality assurance and directing the teaching practice:

We have said, “Well, as a large school system, we need data”. We cannot just like look out of the window and say: “Oh, you know, this is control, and we don’t like that and why don’t you see me as a professional?” and such like. (Civil servant, Denmark)

You simply have to collect data. It is not enough to say “I think” or “I expe­rience” or “I feel”. (Civil servant, Denmark)

Exams direct the teaching practice. Teachers teach based on the exams. They pay attention to a group of students depending on which group we pay attention to. Our evaluation involves pass rate and excellent rate……If we don’t pay attention to the pass rate, the underachievers will not get attention from the teachers. (Civil servant, China)

Although national standardised assessments provided most evidence, municipalities and school leaders in England and Denmark also drew on inclusion data e.g., well-being surveys, attendance statistics. However, the use (and misuse) of data, through reports and league tables, had governing effects which led to the prioritisation of certain policies, practices and constituencies over others. As one teacher in England remarked:

If there was a league table of what school had the happiest children, then they would all be trying to make their children happy… So, that’s the driver. League tables. (Teacher, England)

In Israel teachers and principals mentioned the use of the term “studentship” (תלמידאות), a relatively new word in Hebrew, which is used for assessing students’ skills to be schooled (based on criteria of attendance, homework, and behaviour). One principal explained its relevance during the pandemic when the school had to adapt the report cards:

We divided the report card into two…we allowed them to give a numerical grade, but this was not obligatory, and we gave an option to add a page [in the report card] for a report that was more verbal but divided it into two: learning functions and learner functions. Studentship. Does the child learn, enter classes/not enter classes, how do they participate on Zoom? We paid more attention to their emotional and functional aspects than to the academic aspects in terms of knowledge and subject matter. (Principal, Israel)

Paradoxically, however, civil servants and practitioners noted the limitations to both these data and stakeholders’ data literacy. And despite their use for targeted educational provision, data also had exclusionary powers in their capacity to label students and schools as “good” or “bad”.

3. ‘Children have to be a part of a good community’

The final assemblage constitutes policy and school actors as translators of professional, historical, cultural, educational and political values, beliefs and experiences, which shape their interpretation and enactment of the assessment and inclusion agendas.

National political cultural values – for instance, democracy and Bildung in Denmark, Confucianism in China, or equality and social justice in Argentina – interweave with global discourses of equity and excellence in policy and practice. Beyond this, headteachers and teachers own educational and professional trajectories and values can influence their work. For instance, in Denmark, the concept of “community” was strong across all schools:

Children who do not thrive, do not learn anything.…Children have to be a part of a good community and have to see themselves in this. That is how they thrive as a rule, and then we can start to teach them something. (School leader, Egetræskolen)

An Argentinian principal described how the school had adapted the curriculum to transversal learning projects based on students’ lived experiences, including their homes in the learning experience:

We agreed to take as a starting point the problems that students go through in the neighbourhood in their lives. We gambled on the fact that those daily situations were going to have more impact than other proposals and that’s what happened. We managed to capture greater attention from the children, and their families, transforming the teaching periods, which began to occur in their homes, into meeting spaces with families, where everybody contributed their knowledge. We think of the families next to their children not behind them. (Principal, Argentina)

Paradoxically, though, community and inclusion initiatives could be challenged by the markets and managerialism when students and schools are ranked through performance data, and wellbeing is threatened by an emphasis on assessment results.

Reconciling the Paradoxes

Based on the three assemblages, our research has identified some key points of attention for policymakers and practitioners:

1. Inclusive education is not a product but a process. It must be reinvented by every practitioner in every classroom in every school. This is particularly relevant when this agenda meets counterproductive, or even inhospitable, technologies, practices, and modes of operation. For instance, when national standardised assessments are prioritised for accountability purposes, the diversity of students’ educational needs, interests, experiences and histories can be reduced in number and significance.

2. The decoupling, or non-alignment, of policies, enactments, and experiences of assessment and inclusion can have detrimental effects at the school and individual levels. This is particularly marked in contexts where chains of accountability run from the national to the local levels. The subsequent pressure placed on schools can lead to distorted representations of “success” and “failure” and have consequences for perceptions of education purpose, teacher professionalism and student outcomes. Ultimately, it can be harmful to principal, teacher and student wellbeing and widen educational and social inequalities.

3. At the policy level, inclusive education has been framed as the integration of students with special educational needs into mainstream schools. This is often implemented through processes of decentralisation, whereby fiscal and administrative responsibility for education is transferred to municipalities and/or schools but, often, without adequate funding or capacity building. School leaders and teachers must be given the appropriate financial and human resources to support students’ needs.

4. Improved data literacy could ensure that assessment and inclusion data are used as a pedagogical tool for teacher and student development rather than a managerial tool which provides a limited and/or distorted image of school and student performance. It could also prevent the misuse of performance results which limit the possibilities for inclusive education.

5. Human diversity needs to be considered as a salient pedagogical condition of education. This necessitates reflection on the consequences of different policies, practices, and instruments for all educational stakeholders, but especially students. Education systems need to be sufficiently dynamic to respond to changes in human diversities, interests and needs.