Trust in Numbers? (Dis)Trust in Achievement Measures and Selective Admissions in Two Countries

Stefan Beljean, Harvard University

Educational institutions have long relied on a variety of technologies of evaluation such as grades or test scores to assess students’ learning and facilitate and legitimize educational sorting processes. Much of the existing scholarship have focused on either the history or politics of these educational technologies of evaluation (e.g. Lemann 2000; Carson 2007; Hirschman et al. 2016), but to date, we know only little about how those who are most directly affected by them – pupils – think about the validity of achievement measures and their power to open and close off future life-chances? This paper addresses this question by examining how students in two widely different education systems – that of the US and Germany – think about and make use of achievement measures before an important transition point in their educational careers: the entry to post-secondary education. Drawing on 18 months of fieldwork in schools in the Greater Boston area and Berlin and interviews with more than 160 (upper-)middle-class teenagers, I document how high-SES students in both countries routinely question the validity of grades and tests scores as a measure of their intelligence or ability. However, when it comes to using achievement data for post-secondary planning purposes, it is ironically American students who exhibit less trust in the usefulness of achievement data – even though they have much more data at their fingertips than their German peers. I argue that this is a product of the distinct social organization of selective admissions to American and German higher education. These findings contribute to comparative education research by documenting similarities and differences in how students think about achievement measures in two widely different education systems and they extend scholarship on quantification as a social process by exploring how actors respond to and make sense of technologies of quantification.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 9. Data in Education: Assessment, Measurement, and Accounting