Williamson, “The Worship of Efficiency”

Williamson, Michael. “The Worship of Efficiency: Untangling Theoretical and Practical Considerations in Writing Assessment”  AW

Williamson looks at how efficiency has been a guiding principle in the development assessment across its history. Efficiency, as a concept, refers to the “value returned on investment for public money, human resources, and human raw materials invested in public schools” (58). Such a concept emerged in the turn of the 20th century with the emergence of a scientific perspective on educational research and school administration.

He organizes the history of assessment, and its developments, into three models of educational management:

Factory management model: its purpose is to provide students with common, basic set of academic skills. Students in this model are relatively homogenous—differences are generally irrelevant. Funds are in short supply and require constant monitoring to maximize efficiency.

Bureaucratic management model: its purpose is for students to pursue careers, thus acknowledging that different students have different abilities that require different kinds of programs that reflect those differences. Assessment is key for this model because it helps to identify these differences. Accordingly, “assessment procedures also need to demonstrate that they provide a fair grounding for decisions about inclusions or exclusions in particular educational programs, given that the decision to include or exclude a person from a program is likely to determine his or her social and economic role in society” (61). In this perspective, we begin to see an emphasis on the validity of tests because of their high stakes. In particular, attention is given to the ways wealthier students would be more likely to have “the cultural and material resources to perform well in school and less likely to drop out or perform poorly than students form working class or poor families” (62).

However, while there are theoretical concerns over validity, the context of efficiency—to maximize profits—often supersedes. For example, there was a shift from oral examinations to written examinations because writing as a form of assessment “was considered more efficient; however, these same arguments were used for multiple choice testing at the turn of the century. In this way, there were no considerations of the impact of these assessments:

“Assessment can provide the rationale for the money necessary to maintain a variety of programs, as well as, contribute to the reasonableness of the request for money by demonstrating that education is being conducted efficiently. In both models, however, assessment is a matter secondary to the actual process of education which involves moving students through curricula” (64). In other words, assessment was not seen as a mode of teaching and learning in classroom settings (see: Huot). For example, Williamson notes that multiple choice testing reflected—or influenced—the focus on current-traditionalist pedagogical approaches, valuing grammar and form, i.e. basics. “The proliferation of multiple choice tests has probably led teachers to emphasize knowledge of grammar in Englsh/language classes…the problem results from the use of a limited definition of writing used to development of the highly reliable tests of writing that sacrifices their validity” (73).

But also, the efficiency framework—if you want to call it that—also influenced the kinds of technologies that developed to assess students: “the dominance of computer scored, standardized tests in American education reflects the importance of efficiency more clearly than any other technological innovation in assessment” (67).

Williamson concludes, “the greater the reliability of an assessment practice, the less interesting a description it provides of writing” (71). This, of course, begins to draw more attention to validity of assessments (rather than reliability; see: Moss).


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