Assessment in a conflict perspective

Robinson (1977) criticizes the progressive liberal position in education for concentrating on the technical relations of production and ignoring the social and economic relations of authority and control integral to both production and schooling in a capitalist society. Equally, any analysis of the functions of educational assessment which stops short at its overt, technical role without taking into account its vital, if more covert role, as a manifestation of power and control, is also seriously inadequate. Hextall and Sarup (1977) refer to McHugh et all’s (1974) distinction between evaluation based on power which is imposed by force and evaluation which is apparently rational or scientific, making reference to the standards of what constitutes knowledge in the community as a whole. Hextall and Sarup (1977) and Hextall (1976) refute this claim for‘scientific’ evaluation, arguing that all school assessment involves the implicit acceptance of a particular set of standards and values embedded in a particular economic structure and political order. Thus, they argue, it can never be a technical act alone but is essentially a political act.

Evaluation implies and refers to the giving of ‘acceptable’ reasons grounded upon implicit or explicit notions of ‘standards’. (What constitute ‘good’ reasons and rules, their negotiation and legitimation are important questions.)

(Hextall and Sarup, 1977)

If we see the apparently objective endorsement of assessment as essentially a political act, this raises a host of new issues. The consensus model of society (and hence the education system) working equally in the interests of all rather than particular interest group(s) - the ideology which underpins the liberal reformist tradition - is brought into question. The form and content of assessment takes on a new significance as a reflection of class differences in the production and communication of knowledge and understanding. The complementary operation of the hidden curriculum - all those aspects of school life not part of formal teaching but highly instrumental in socializing pupils into appropriate attitudes and modes of behaviour - and the host of similarly informal and covert assessment practices, may likewise be the subject of different kinds of question.

There is a growing body of evidence (see for example, Halsey, 1978; Tyler, 1977) that the ever expanding educational opportunities have done little to erode class differentials in educational achievement. Many sociologists have sought to account for this phenomenon by adopting a perspective in which education is seen as a means of social reproduction rather than social mobility. Although such conflict theories cover a wide range of both Marxist and non-Marxist perspectives, they share a common emphasis on the need to understand society in terms of class conflict and control by a dominant group, which will seek to perpetuate and legitimate its privileged position. Typically, education is seen as a key mechanism for this reproduction and legitimation. For the sake of clarity, I have chosen to confine the discussion of the role of educational assessment in such a conflict perspective to three of the most influential and relevant theories.

The correspondence theory

The leading exponents of this theory are the American economists Bowles and Gintis in Schooling in Capitalist America (1976). Their ideas emphasize the important correspondence between the social relations of capitalist production and the social relations of the school. From a neo-Marxist perspective, they see assessment in a broad spectrum comprising five important sets of pupil/worker characteristics. One of these five sets of characteristics assessed is that traditionally emphasized in assessment procedures of cognitive achievement, which in this case includes both scholastic achievement and concrete technical and operational skills such as typewriting. More important though are the second set - behavioural characteristics such as motivation, perseverance and co-operation. The third set of characteristics for assessment relates not to the performance of a particular task, but concerns ‘modes of self-presentation’ in speech, dress or self-perception. These ‘modes of presentation’, Bowles and Gintis argue, play a vital role as legitimators of differences in the occupational hierarchy, as do the fourth and fifth sets of criteria - ascriptive characteristics such as race, sex and age, and credentials (other relevant differentiators between individuals, such as the level and prestige of schooling). From their statistical analysis of the various factors influencing economic success they conclude that ‘a family’s position in the [United States] class structure is reproduced primarily by mechanisms operating independently of the inheritance, production and certification of intellectual skills’ (Bowles and Gintis, 1976). In other words, whilst overtly emphasizing objective academic assessment, schools are in fact assessing pupils on a wide range of other criteria, which are either ascriptive and thus not open to pupils to change, or highly subjective. The fact that these assessments strongly influence the expectations teachers have of pupils and hence their subsequent interaction with them, compounds the assessment by encouraging the pupil to build up a particular self-image. This highly significant aspect of assessment we shall discuss in detail in chapter 5.

The importance of the emphasis on apparently objective tests and on intelligence tests in particular in this perspective is, as has already been argued, in reinforcing the authoritarian, hierarchical, stratified and unequal economic system of production and in reconciling the individual to his place in it so that he comes to see such a system as natural (i.e. adopts a liberal reformist ideology!). Thus Bowles and Gintis would explain the apparent failure of massive compensatory education programmes in the United States such as Project Headstart and Follow Through, Project Talent and, by implication, in Britain the Education Priority Areas (Halsey, 1972) and the continuing discrepancy between the achievements of the various social classes, as being a necessary reflection of the inequalities inherent in capitalist production. Although sociologists of very different perspectives have been largely agreed on the important differential effects of family socialization patterns on school achievement, Bowles and Gintis stress that these differing self-perceptions, aspirations and behavioural characteristics are not eroded by the school - as compensatory education programmes have sought to do - but are rather compounded in school as staff categorize pupils according to a wide range of criteria drawn from each of the five sets of assessment characteristics outlined above.

Crucial to their argument, too, however, is that the rationale for selection and allocation at school, its organization on bureaucratic and hierarchical lines, with stratification based on ability, age and sex and rewards in the form of marks and promotion, corresponds exactly with the norms of the work place. Dale (1977) puts the point neatly: ‘This process of sorting, shifting and positioning prepares pupils for being sorted, shifted and positioned in world society, a process which it both anticipates and legitimates through the frequently mutually reinforcing cognitive and behavioural criteria involved.’ In this sense then, assessment can be seen not only as an instrumental mechanism, but as a vital part of the socialization process which trains pupils to accept external judgement, external rewards and external control. John Holt (1969), with his usual pungency, describes the process by which, as some of their first lessons in school, children learn to work for external rewards alone, so that gradually they become as alienated from their school work as any factory worker. ‘In school he learns like every buck private or conscript labourer ... how not to work when the boss isn’t looking, how to know when he is looking, how to make him think you are working when you know he is looking.’

It is significant, in this context, that assessment is almost exclusively regarded as an individual activity in the same way that wages are an individual return for work done, teaching pupils early the ethics of individualism and competition, also intrinsic both to capitalist society and hence to education, as Durkheim (1969) has argued. Indeed so fundamental is this relationship to school life as we know it that it is difficult not to endorse Hextall’s (1976) sentiments: ‘the pain and mystery of this for me is that such a fundamentally quantitative, calculative orientation to work is so embedded that an alternative version is literally inconceivable.’ And herein lies the key to the ‘correspondence’ principle. Bowles and Gintis argue that the division of labour is not, as is popularly supposed, the most technically efficient, productive form of organizing labour. Rather, they assert, it is essential to the maintenance of an alienated work force divided amongst itself which is then far too demoralized to foster any serious criticisms of the status quo. So in schools, it may be argued, assessment is important for dividing pupils amongst themselves and thus for diffusing any possibility of a concerted attack on the existing model of schooling.

Certainly there is plenty of evidence (e.g. Becher and Maclure, 1978; Scottish Education Department, 1977) which demonstrates the tight control formal assessment procedures keep on innovation in schools. Open, progressive primary practices are quickly sacrificed for the ‘real work’ of the secondary school (Kogan, 1978). Many secondary teachers readily admit their impotence to bring about change or even fulfil their own educational ideals in the face of the exigencies of the exam syllabus and its individualist orientation (Raven, 1977). Even at the higher education level, student radicalism must be largely defenceless in the face of the powerful interests behind the final examination.

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