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Test-based accountability dominates educational policy and practice around the globe. It focuses school systems on a small set of quantitative performance indicators, most prominently standardized test scores in literacy and numeracy. Policymakers use these indicators to monitor and negatively sanction schools, teachers and students who perform below standards. Urgent questions of whether test-based accountability can improve the quality of education for all students are at the center of current educational debates.
This paper aims to help educators and others understand the structure of these debates so they can engage deliberatively in them. We do so by exploring arguments about two prominent test-based accountability policies, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and IMPACT-DC, the teacher evaluation policy implemented by the District of Columbia Public Schools in 2009 that became the prototype for evaluation policies across the US. We ask: (1) What arguments do stakeholders use to defend or contest PISA and IMPACT? and (2) What visions of educational quality and equity do these arguments promote?
We turn to pragmatic sociology to address these questions. Pragmatic sociology identifies the “orders of worth” people employ to build arguments about policy (Jagd, 2011; Patriotta, Gond, & Schultz, 2011). Boltanski and Thevenot (1999) identify six orders common in modern Western democracies: inspired, fame, domestic, civic, market, and industrial. These orders provide justification frameworks that specify the criteria, evidence, and methods for establishing people’s worth. Each also rests on a particular notion of the common good. The industrial order, for example, assesses schools and teachers’ worth according to objective data about productivity and efficiency; policies are seen to serve the common good when they increase schools’ and teachers’ effectiveness.
We draw data from two qualitative case studies: (1) the construction and global dissemination of PISA data and (2) public debate about IMPACT. Primary data sources are OECD reports and news articles about PISA published between 2007 and 2013, and newspaper and Internet texts about IMPACT published between 2008 and 2013.
Our analysis of these data documents how proponents mobilize multiple orders to justify and defend the policies. The OECD uses industrial and market orders to define educational quality and equity as the efficient production of human capital as measured by PISA data, while IMPACT proponents employ industrial and civic arguments to define equity as the obligation of individual teachers to effectively raise achievement scores. Both marshal quantitative evidence to support their claims. Policy opponents, especially teachers, mobilize domestic and inspired arguments that rely on personal accounts and anecdote. When teachers employ civic arguments they do so to criticize IMPACT as unfair to them rather than argue for student equity.
Test-based accountability continues to dominant K-12 policy and now extends into teacher education. By identifying the justificatory frameworks employed in policy debates, the paper illuminates test-based accountability’s rhetorical grounding. It provides educators and others tools to enter policy debates in ways that promote an expansive vision of education and its democratic purpose.