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Questioning Assessments: National Tests, Grades and Student Rights
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Department of Education.
Umeå universititet, Institutionen för tillämpad utbildningsvetenskap.
2016 (English)Conference paper, Abstract (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

Research questions, objectives and theoretical framework

This paper engages with the ongoing education policy debate on fairness, student rights and educational governance related to increased accountability pressure derived from neo-liberal policies and associated state restructurings (eg. Waldow, 2014; Lingard and Sellar, 2013; Ozga et al, 2011). At the centre of the paper is the Swedish Schools Inspectorate’s re-markings of already marked student achievements on national tests – a supervisory programme introduced by the Swedish Government on a three years mandate in 2009 and subsequently assigned on a permanent basis. This programme is situated as an example of political management of the tensions between competition and equality inherent in neo-liberal educational regulatory regimes.

Associated with accountability and improvement regimes, standardised national testing policies have a long history in many nations (Mons 2009), whereas in others they reflect a more recent change in the steering of education systems (Eurydice 2009; Lingard and Sellar 2013). In highly decentralised, marketised and competitive education systems it has been stressed that national tests are important tools for follow-up and evaluation of the performance of education (Blanchenay et al. 2014; Segerholm 2009) as well as to gauge the overall effectiveness of education policies and practices (Eurydice 2009).

Up until 2009, Sweden was one of the few countries in Europe where teachers assessed their students’ achievements on national tests independently, with no external checks of the assessments taking place (Eurydice 2009). The lack of external reviewers put strong emphasis on the teachers’ ability to make reliable assessments and fair judgments (Wikström and Wikström 2004). However, these assessments, and consequently, the merit and worth of national tests as monitoring instruments on a system level, have been questioned due to reports on ‘grade inflation’ and differences in marks on national test results and the final grades for those subjects. Parallel to this development, international assessments and evaluations have indicated declining learning outcomes among Swedish students and an increasing disparity among Swedish schools. Education has been portrayed by the media as being in emergency and crisis. Media discourses are part of ‘policy as becoming’ (Ball et al. 2012) when constructing issues and subjects in specific ways, and this media logic has notably become a necessary aspect of governing (Gewirtz et al. 2004; Lingard and Rawolle 2004).

Previous scholarship has provided important insights into the different conceptions of justice built into the blueprints of various systems of examination and assessment in Europe, with a claim that national tests in Sweden serve as ‘safeguards of fair procedure’ (Waldow 2014), and with critique to the methodology of the Inspectorate’s re-marking of national tests (Gustafsson and Erickson 2013). Less attention, however, has been directed to contested claims for authority over teacher assessment, and especially to the processes by which state level authorities have consolidated and extended their control over teachers’ assessment of national tests. Consequently, the ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz 1983) and contexts (Stake 1995) necessary in order to understand the complex nature of political forces, interactions, and processes involved, are lacking.

A conceptual framework informed by work of Bacchi (2009) guides the analysis of the ways and means by which an external agency has been able to expropriate control of teachers’ assessments of national tests from the internal control of the schools. Unfolding texts are examined with regard to key questions, in this case: How are teachers’ assessments of national tests represented as a problem, and what different assumptions underpin these representations? Further, how do the ways policy actors discuss and address these issues shape the problem descriptions? We further draw on Rawolle’s (2010) concept of mediatisation, focusing on the implications of representations in different social fields in the becoming of policy.


Methods, Research Instruments and Sources Used 

We employ a case study approach grounded in the work of Robert Stake (1995) in order to provide a holistic mode of inquiry consistent with, and responsive to, the discovery, exploration, and understanding of the processes of the Inspectorate’s re-marking programme as well as its contextual characteristics. In line with this approach, the programme at hand is not regarded as a concrete resolution of ministerial decisions, but as a site within which it is possible to observe policy being shaped and value being competed for (Kushner 2012). Hence, by deepening the understanding of complex interactions that intervene between presumed causes and observable effects – ‘i.e. not what programmes achieve, but how they work’ (ibid p. 108) – policy is thought of less in terms of decision-making by a political elite, and more of as being shaped at sites. 

The documentary material to be examined comprises mainly three types of text, each from a different social field: 1) laws and ordinances as well as other government official documents relating to the Inspectorate’s re-marking of national tests, such as reports (‘SOU’), government bills (‘Prop.’), government commissions (‘Regeringsbeslut’), and regulation letters (‘Regleringsbrev’) from the Government to the Inspectorate and the National Agency of Education; 2) internal and official material produced by the Inspectorate as part of the re-marking commission, such as annual accounts and plans, specific inspection reports, web information and broschures; 3) newspaper articles from the two largest morning newspapers (‘Dagens Nyheter’ and ‘Svenska Dagbladet’), and the two largest tabloids (‘Expressen’ and ‘Aftonbladet’). 


Conclusions, expected outcomes or findings 

Preliminary findings support observations that the Swedish Government sees indications of discrepancies between students’ final grades in subjects and the marks they receive on national tests in those subjects as a threat to fair assessment (Waldow 2014; Gustafsson and Erickson 2013). In addition, we observe how a legal discourse has come to penetrate the problem representations of unfair teachers’ assessments in the domains of politics, audit practice and media. We demonstrate how and by which means essential signifiers of this legal discourse have come to materialise, pointing to a juridification of education governance.

The Inspectorate is positioned as a ‘safeguard’ of fair teacher markings of national tests. National tests in Sweden have been described by Waldow (2014) as functioning as ‘safeguards of fair procedure’. As such, we understand the Inspectorate’s re-markings of student achievement on national tests similar to what Power (1997) describes as ‘control of control’ in audit societies. We further demonstrate that the inspection regime amplifies the national tests’ embodied potential for narrowing the curriculum, not only by the scope of the tested curriculum constructs, but also by the processes that undergo juridification in resolving issues of unfair assessments. Especially in the media, the problem representations tend to contribute to an increased mistrust in teachers’ professionalism, which, in turn, strengthens state level authority over education. Representing the problem as unfair assessments and calling for an external supervisory body to safeguard the assessment procedures opens up for policy changes and implications that are both notably similar to, and substantially different from, those observed in studies on the harmonisation of politics and policies across and beyond Europe.



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Ball, S. J., et al. (2012). How schools do policy. Policy enactments in secondary schools.  London: Routledge.

Blanchenay, P., et al. (2014), “Shifting Responsibilities - 20 Years of Education Devolution in Sweden: A Governing Complex Education Systems Case Study”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 104, OECD Publishing.

Eurydice (2009) National Testing of Pupils in Europe: Objectives, Organisation and Use of Results. http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/education/eurydice/documents/thematic_reports/109en.pdf

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Gustafsson, J.-E, and Erickson, G. (2013). To trust or not to trust? - teacher marking versus external marking of national tests. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 2013(25): 69-87.

Kushner, S (2012) Case Study and equity in Evaluation. In Marco Segone (ed.), Evaluation for equitable development results (pp. 172-191). New York: UNICEF.

Lingard, B., and Rawolle, S. (2004). Mediatizing educational policy: The journalistic field, science policy, and cross‐field effects. Journal of Education Policy, 19(3): 361-380.

Lingard, B, and Sellar, S (2013) 'Catalyst data'. Perverse systemic effects of audit and accountability in australian schooling. Journal of Education Policy, 28(5): 634-656.

Mons, N. (2009), “Theoretical and Real Effects of Standardised Assessment”, Background paper to the study: National Testing of Pupils in Europe, Eurydice Network, http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/education/eurydice/documents/thematic_reports/111EN.pdf

Ozga, J., et al (2011) Fabricating quality in education. Data and governance in Europe. London: Sage

Power, M. (1997). The audit society. Rituals of verification.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Waldow, F. (2014). Conceptions of justice in the examination systems of England, Germany, and Sweden: A look at safeguards of fair procedure and possibilities of appeal. Comparative Education Review, 58(2): 322-343.

Wikström, C., and Wikström, M. (2004). Grade inflation and school competition: an empirical analysis based on the Swedish upper secondary schools. Economics of Education Review, 24(3), 309–322.





Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Keyword [en]
School inspection, national tests, juridification, mediatization, trust in teachers, policymaking
National Category
Educational Sciences
Research subject
Education; Political Science
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-307323OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-307323DiVA: diva2:1046164
European Conference on Educational Research (ECER). NW 23: Policy Studies and Politics of Education. Dublin, Ireland, August 23-26, 2016.
Available from: 2016-11-12 Created: 2016-11-12 Last updated: 2016-11-12

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