Developing a Unified View of Education: the rise of the Assessed since the 1930s

Working papers from our ECER symposium, Developing a Unified View of Education: the rise of the Assessed since the 1930s, now available here.

Intelligence and knowledge is genuinely invisible. It has to be withdrawn from the inside of our heads with help from external measurements using questions, such as an IQ test, and translated into a calculable form. We then have to interpret these figures and numbers to be able to decide the reasonable level of action on these measurements. This process of making intelligence and knowledge valid is the same no matter if we are dealing with traditional IQ-testing, contemporary knowledge assessments or neuro physiological brain scanning. (Messick 1980, 1989, Porter 1996, Wiliam 2009).

The symposium Developing a Unified View of Education: the rise of the Assessed since the 1930s is based on current research from the project ‘From Paris to Pisa: Governing Education by Comparison 1867-2015’, funded by the Swedish Research Council ( The project is organized around four different periods of which this symposium deals with our third phase: the beginnings and history of the development of education statistics in post-war Europe. A major focus of this part of the study is the investigation of actors and networks establishing a unifying and unified view of education as a policy field in Europe. Here the transition from individual intelligence testing to large scale knowledge assessments becomes essential.

For the group of testers to be perceived as viable, the public needed to understand that the test measurements were valid and useful. Academic credentials alone were insufficient, as educational practitioners, by tradition, had enjoyed considerable autonomy in determining which characteristics would count toward being considered an educable child (Kamin 1974; Danziger 1990; Lundahl 2006). Therefore, we observe that validity and usefulness can be thought of as acts of calibrating the public eye to enable it to see, in this case, the world as seen by testing proponents (Landahl & Lundahl 2013). In many European countries, acts of calibration become visible in the turn educational testing took between 1910 and 1960. Here educational policy and research played an ambivalent role as testing proponents on one side, but also adherent to the needs of education on the other side. We can see how new discursive coalitions appear during this period as a consequence of making the psychometrical language and logic more prevalent in the educational field and thus, for example, providing scholars with places, spaces and funds for their research (Wittrock, Wagner et al. 1991; Ludvigsen, Lundahl & Ydéssen 2013). In this symposium we focus on two forms of calibrations that took part during the 1930s to the 1960s. The first one educates teachers in the principles of IQ testing, making possible a transition from psychometrical expertise to educational expertise. The second form of calibration concerns the transition from intelligence testing to knowledge assessments. This transition is basically about the first attempt to conduct curriculum valid assessments.

Ludvigsen, K., Lundahl, C. & Ydesén, C. (2013): Creating an Educational Testing Profession in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, 1910-1960. European Educational Research Journal, 12(1), 120 – 138.
Lundahl, C. (2006): Viljan att veta vad andra vet. Kunskapsbedömning i tidigmodern, modern och senmodern skola. Arbetsliv i omvandling 2006:8. Akademisk avhandling vid Uppsala universitet. Stockholm: Arbetslivsinstitutet.
Landahl, J. & Lundahl, C. (2013): (Mis)trust in numbers. Stuggling with transparency. In Lawn, M. (ed): The Rise of Data in Education Systems. Oxford: Symposion Books. s. 57 – 78
Messick, S. (1980): Test Validity and the Ethics of Assessment. I American Psychologist, vol. 35, No 11, pp. 1012–1027.
Messick, S. (1989): Validity. In R. L. Linn (ed.): Educational Measurement. Third edition 1993. Phoenix: The Oryx Press. Pp. 13–103.
Latour, Bruno (1987) Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Porter, T. M. (1996). Trust in numbers: The pursuit of objectivity in science and public life. Princeton University Press.
Wagner, P. & Wittrock, B. (1991): States, Institutions, and Discourses: A Comparative Perspective on the Structuration of the Social Sciences. In P. Wagner, B. Wittrock & R. Whitley. Discourses on Society. The Shaping of the Social Science Disciplines. Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academinc Publishers.

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Christian Lundahl

Christian Lundahl, Professor of education, School of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Örebro university.