An Atlantic Crossing? The Work of the International Examinations Inquiry, its Researchers, Methods and Influence

Howard Lee (Massey University)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 14 October 2011



Lee, H. (2011), "An Atlantic Crossing? The Work of the International Examinations Inquiry, its Researchers, Methods and Influence", History of Education Review, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 196-199.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Debates concerning the status, purpose, credibility, and future of school examinations are by no means new in western societies. Indeed, almost from the time that the state assumed responsibility for the provision and funding of free primary education (i.e. during the last quarter of the nineteenth century), there have been vigorous and often heated debates about the need for examinations, their relationship to the school curriculum, and their impact upon students and teachers. These debates have intensified in the latter part of the twentieth century as politicians, conservative and liberal, demand greater “accountability” from national education systems and expect transparent and unambiguous “outcomes” from the state's considerable financial investment in education. Important questions have also been raised about the cultural, economic, and social purposes of education and its institutions, about the kind of society and human beings they are seeking to mould, and the extent to which school‐based examinations have enhanced equal education opportunities throughout the twentieth century.

These themes, and many others, are explored in great detail in An Atlantic Crossing? This book chronicles the rise of the International Examinations Inquiry (IEI), analyses its invitation‐only membership and its research activities and findings, and evaluates its influence and impact upon secondary school examination policies and practices in eight countries (England, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and Switzerland) from the 1920s until the 1950s.

The book begins with a superb introduction by Martin Lawn that sets the scene for the eight country case study chapters that follow. Lawn's introductory chapter makes the telling point that educational administrators, comparativists, historians, progressivists, psychologists, and statisticians seldom have the opportunity to meet as colleagues to exchange and debate ideas about how examinations might be modified to take account of the rapid expansion in secondary education internationally. The IEI conferences held in 1931 (Eastbourne, England), 1936 (Folkestone, England), and 1938 (Dinard, France) provided such an opportunity and it is these three conferences that Lawn and his fellow contributors discuss and analyse at length in this book.

Having read Lawn's opening chapter the reader is then introduced to his account of the work and influence of IEI's English Committee (EC), chaired by Sir Michael Sadler and greatly assisted by Sir Philip Hartog (Project Director) who wrote a number of its publications. Lawn claims that although important in the context of post‐war developments in English education, the EC was unable to spearhead the hoped for radical reform of the English examination system that its members sought. In the words of Hartog, the EC proved incapable of “entering the citadel of examinations” owing to its inability to “blow up what is bad and reconstruct what was good […] with a battering ram of facts” (p. 39).

The following seven chapters take the reader through individual country case studies of the extent to which the IEI acted as a forum for its (all male) members to understand better how secondary school examinations functioned in different countries and how these examinations might be improved.

The German delegation, as Waldow explains, was caught between wanting education for radical individual self‐cultivation and character formation (Bildung) and advocating examinations, tests, and psychometric testing. The Swiss were caught in a similar bind regarding the fundamental tension between the progressivist and emancipatory principles of “New Education” that demanded the abolition of school examinations and the state's need to assess educational achievement objectively. Precisely the same dilemma exists today in all of the above named countries, as the authors in this collection observe.

The French Committee that attended the three IEI conferences knew that their leading secondary school teachers strenuously opposed any suggestion of changing the existing examination system. The French delegation's position was further complicated because they were themselves divided over the direction that French education should take. Some advocated a general cultural curriculum with traditional secondary school examinations set by the universities (e.g. Baccalaureate) to select the intellectual elite, and to differentiate and allocate youth to different vocational paths, whereas others wanted scientific, quantitative, and possibly psychometric testing introduced in both primary and secondary schools.

The chapter describing the Scottish influence on the IEI conferences explores the lead role taken by the embryonic Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE) in facilitating wide‐ranging educational experimentation and undertaking extensive fieldwork and inquiries in areas such as intelligence testing, the prognostic value of university entrance examinations, and surveying and measurement. The significance of the SCRE, the authors conclude, was that despite being a “Scottish” research institute it connected education research successfully with policy at the same time as looking internationally for new research ideas and technologies.

Finland was a late addition to the IEI, having established its own Examination Enquiry (also called the Finnish Carnegie Committee) in 1936. While the Finnish Committee included education officials, secondary school teachers, and education reformers, it was driven and shaped largely by Lauren Zilliacus’ commitment to embedding the “whole child” principles of the New Education Fellowship into all aspects of schooling. The problem for Zilliacus and his colleagues was the highly prescriptive and restrictive nature of the Finnish Matriculation Examination that dominated the secondary school curriculum and prevented any pedagogical experimentation. Despite the publication of many comprehensive research reports throughout the 1930s matriculation was not abandoned. Nevertheless, Zilliacus’ ideas provided the impetus for post‐war secondary education reform.

Sweden and Norway also joined the IEI in 1936. The Swedish wanted a unified education system and used the IEI project to affirm their progressive and comprehensive schooling principles. However, the real problem confronting Swedish educators was how to use existing school tests to generate greater educational efficiencies and enhance teacher professionalism. The Society for a Psychological and Pedagogical Institute, constituted formally in 1934, had sought to bridge the gap between theoretical and practical teacher education pedagogy. A decade later the government established the State Psychological Pedagogical Institute (SPPI) in a bid to modernise Swedish education. One of the SPPI's first tasks was to develop standardised “scientific” tests for the school curriculum. These tests, along with the Institute's overtly behaviouristic approach to education research, meant that the long tradition of teacher judgement disappeared and teachers increasingly became deprofessionalised. By the late 1940s, Lundahl concludes, the Swedish education system had become “psychologically colonized” owing to the widespread use of, and hegemonic faith in, psychological testing and intensive teacher training in psychology.

A latecomer to the IEI, Norway had consolidated and unified its state primary and secondary schools from the 1920s in a bid to establish comprehensive schooling nationally. However, Norwegian educators soon found themselves caught between the public demand for educational equality (via access to a common, non‐stratified, system of state primary and secondary schooling), and the need for differentiation (by way of a national examinations framework and marking system) and the selection of an intellectual elite. By the late 1930s examinations dominated the Norwegian education landscape, with the primary schools now required to mark using a normal (bell curve) distribution and the two senior secondary school matriculation examinations highly esteemed by the public. The Nordic populist egalitarianism‐through‐examinations orientation to education, overlooked by the IEI in its deliberations and reports, was sharply at odds with the then European tradition and American approach to universal education. As Ballard (1937) observed: “In England examinations were under suspicion and in America under arrest. Professor Bovet added that in Switzerland they had been tried and convicted”.

Lawn is to be congratulated for having edited and contributed to this highly readable and well‐written book. An Atlantic Crossing? not only provides an admirably clear, absorbing, penetrating, and scholarly analysis of the history of the IEI but also reveals the uncertainties that have surrounded the development and subsequent use of school examinations in many European countries. As Lawn and his contributors conclude, while the IEI provided a forum for (invited) educators to review and debate examination developments in individual countries, no lasting consensus emerged about how best to examine, test, and assess secondary school students internationally in ways that were educationally and statistically reliable and valid. In other words, the goal of the IEI – for local initiatives to inform international initiatives, and vice versa – was never realised.

This book deserves a very wide reading and I recommend it highly to all those interested in educational assessment in general and school examinations in particular. Like Lawn, I hope that this book will act as a catalyst for those who seek to reform the education and examination systems to do so with careful attention to our historical past and to the many issues that confront policy makers who seek to implement knee‐jerk responses to wider political and social issues.

My only criticisms of this book are that it lacks an index and assumes that the IEI's influence was confined to the northern hemisphere. My own research on the history of public school examinations in New Zealand, for example, reveals that the IEI's work was well known, highly respected, and often cited by senior education administrators and leading academics and educators in this country who were fortunate to have met some of those who had attended the 1931 and 1936 IEI conferences when they travelled to New Zealand in July 1937 to give keynote addresses to the New Education Fellowship Conference.

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