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Assessment and Identity
Gordon Stobart
Institute of Education
University of London
The power of assessment
Unspeakably more depends on what things are
called than on what they are … creating new
names and assessments and apparent truths is
enough to create new ‘things’.
(Friedrich Nietzsche, 1887)
The individual in contemporary society is not so
much described by tests as constructed by them.
(Allan Hanson, 1994)
Assessment is a value-laden social activity, and
there is no such thing as ‘culture-free’
Assessment does not objectively measure what is
already there, but rather creates and shapes what
is measured – it is capable of ‘making up people’.
Assessment impacts directly on what and how we
learn, and can undermine or encourage effective
Creating learners: the case of Hannah
HANNAH: I’m really scared about the SATs. Mrs O’Brien [a
teacher at the school] came in and talked to us about our
spelling and I’m no good at spelling and David [the class
teacher] is giving us times tables tests every morning and I’m
hopeless at times tables so I’m frightened I’ll do the SATS and
I’ll be a nothing.
DIANE: I don’t understand, Hannah. You can’t be a nothing.
HANNAH: Yes, you can ’cos you have to get a level like a level 4 or
level 5 and if you’re no good at spellings and times tables you
don’t get those levels and so you’re a nothing.
DIANE: I’m sure that’s not right.
HANNAH: Yes it is ’cos that’s what Mrs O’Brien was saying.
(Reay and Wiliam, 1999, p. 345)
Creating learners: the case of Ruth
Learning the formula for each exam and practising it
endlessly. I got an A1 in English because I knew exactly what
was required in each question. I learned off the sample
answers provided by the examiners and I knew how much
information was required and in what format in every section
of the paper. That’s how you do well in these examinations…
There’s no point in knowing about stuff that is not going to
come up in the exams. I was always frustrated by teachers
who would say ‘You don’t need to know this for the exams but
I’ll tell you anyway’. I wanted my A1 – what’s the point of
learning material that won’t come up in the exams?
Making up people
‘sometimes our sciences create kinds of people that in
a sense did not exist before. This is making up
people’ (Hacking, 2006)
The example of Multiple Personality Disorder (now the
Dissociative Identity Disorder),
1 Classification. This behaviour was quickly associated with a
2 The people. These are the unhappy/inadequate individuals
who will express this identity (or fortunate individuals in the
case of ‘genius’).
3 The institutions. Clinics, training programmes and international
conferences address the disorder.
4 Knowledge. from the institutions and from popular knowledge.
5 Experts. These generate the knowledge, judge its validity and
use it in practice.
Hacking’s ten engines of discovery
1. Count,
2. Quantify,
3. CreateNorms,
4. Correlate,
5. Medicalise,
6. Biologise,
7. Geneticise,
8. Normalise,
9. Bureaucratise,
10. Reclaim our identity
The case of IQ testing
1. Count, - scores (Binet, Galton)
2. Quantify, normal distribution curve (Galton)
3. Create Norms, (Mental Age; 100, SD 15)
4. Correlate, with success (Spearman)
5. Medicalise, (terminology – imbecile, moron etc)
6. Biologise, location (energy/complexity/reaction)
7. Geneticise innate and fixed (Burt)
8. Normalise, tripartite education (Burt)
9. Bureaucratise, 11+
10. Reclaim our identity comprehensive movement? (NI)
The problem with ability...
• [ability] acts as an unrecognised version of
‘intelligence’ and ‘IQ’. If we were to substitute ‘IQ’ for
‘ability’ many alarm bells would ring that currently
remain silent because ‘ability’ acts as an untainted yet
powerful reconstitution of all the beliefs previously
wrapped up terms such as intelligence.
(Gillborn and Udell, 2001,p.81)
• ability labelling “exerts an active, powerful force within
school and classroom processes, helping to create the
very disparities of achievement that it purports to
(Hart et al., 2004, p.21)
Other examples of creating
1. Multiple and Emotional Intelligences
2. Learning Styles: VAKT, Deep, Surface and
Strategic learners
Construct issues – validity and naming
Assessment issues – unreliability & overinterpretation
Reclaiming assessment
• Step 1: limit assessment ambitions, focus on
• Step 2: interpret results more cautiously
• Step 3: acknowledge the context
• Step 4: recognise the importance of interaction
• Step 5: create sustainable assessment:
Boud’s double duty of assessment ‘any assessment
act must also contribute in some way to learning
beyond the immediate task … assessment that
meets the needs of the present and prepares
students to meet their own future needs’
Becoming responsible for who we are
‘A theory of education has to spell out how children take
on responsibilities for learning and how one, whether
teacher or learner, goes about judging whether those
responsibilities have been met. … Teachers are
notoriously disposed to explain children’s success in
terms of putative abilities and learning styles rather
than on the conditions that make learning easy or
‘agency, intentionality and responsibility could become
the central features of a psychology that has special
relevance for education. Abilities, traits and
dispositions can be left to find a new place in the
natural sciences or else relegated to the dust-bin of
history’ (Olson, 2006, p. 43).
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