A Dangerous Game: The Dehumanization of Children in Massachusetts Testing and Data Discourse

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Vol: 2, Issue: 1, Page: 71

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Shea, Gregory
Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Research; Educational Leadership; Rhetoric; Social and Philosophical Foundations of Education; discourse analysis; MCAS; testing; language games
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A great deal has been written about the ills of standardized testing, most of which focuses on their lack of validity and negative impacts on students. One topic that has not been explored in depth is the ways in which the discourse around testing can dehumanize public school students. This paper turns its attention to utterances of the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, Mitchell Chester, along with the utterances of the superintendents of two large urban districts in Massachusetts. The thesis of this discourse analysis is that the words of these administrators betray an unconscious but troubling ideology of dehumanization. The focus on testing, and, even more importantly, the data these tests produce, leaves little room for the discussion- and therefore the valuing- of student humanity. A scholarly foundation for this type of dehumanization is introduced through the work of Nick Haslam “Dehumanization: An Integrative Review,” which describes a form of dehumanization called “mechanization” which “represents a view of others as object- or automaton-like” (Haslam, 258).The paper uses a discourse-analysis framework Jean-Francois Lyotard describes as “language games” to highlight that every utterance can be conceived of as a move in a game. This is combined with an observation from Fairclough, who writes that every utterance is “invested,” which is to say that no utterance is completely neutral. These are important foundational ideas when critiquing the testing movement in education, the very size of which can make the data its tests produce seem like a sort of neutral, natural truth.The remainder of the argument illustrates exactly how the words of the aforementioned administrators dehumanize the state’s public school children and also presents a situation in the Boston Public Schools that presents a telling juxtaposition of the dehumanizing language of state administrators against the humanistic language of a parent.