Historicing Intelligence 4

Psychometrics in Education 1945-2020: Subjection and/or liberation of the subject?

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Participants: Fredrik Thue, Kim Gunnar Helsvig, Kari Ludvigsen

While serving partly as an instrument for segregating “underachievers”, psychometrics in education has been closely related to pedagogical progressivism, a focus of which was to liberate the curriculum from the cultural tradition and adapt it to the individual student’s abilities and interests. This work package takes this ambiguity as its starting point, and will (a) explore some selected controversies about IQ testing and other psychometric practices as instruments of school development in Norway c. 1945–1970, (b) investigate change and continuity in practices of educational measuring from the early post-war period to the “PISA-era”, and (c) examine the role of IQ-tests and psychometrics in the rise of the pedagogical-psychological services 1950-1980.

Controversies on IQ and psychometrics ca 1945-1970 (Thue)

From 1945 to the late 1960s, the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Oslo concentrated its effort on psychometrics. The aim of its head, professor Johs. Sandven, was to apply psychometric methods to the development of a comprehensive school, and quite particularly, to solve the problem of differentiation and adapt education to students’ various abilities and needs. However, Sandven and his department seemed to have largely failed in the attempt to make itself a hub of progressive school development in the social-democratic age, in striking contrast to his more internationally renowned Swedish colleague Torsten Husén. The project will compare the partly diverging paths of pedagogics/psychometrics as a tool of school development in post-war Norway and Sweden, with special emphasis on the various forms of resistance that this project provoked in both countries. If feasible, the project will also include some comparative glances to the US. An underlying hypothesis is that there were significant national differences in the role of psychometrics within education, and that this is indicative of more general differences between the three societies and the way they mobilized education as part of broader “welfare policies”.

Change and continuity in educational measuring 1950s to "the PISA-era" (Helsvig)

During the 1950s research-politics cooperation was established in Norway, based on psychometric testing for selection and differentiation within the emerging and comprehensive social democratic school system. From the late 1960s, however, both the dominant Labour Party and the Ministry dismissed the psychometric tradition as an irrelevant policy partner for developing schools based on the notions of equity, equal opportunities and national and social integration (Dale 1999, Helsvig 2005). The “PISA-era” from the turn of the century, has however seen a revival of educational tests and measurements as part of a decisive “international turn” in Norwegian educational debate and policy (Ministry of Education and Research 2008, Helsvig 2017). 

This study will address two research questions:

  • Has the previously dominant, but for many years dormant, psychometric tradition in Norwegian educational science been revived in the post 2000 PISA era as a tool for managing school and teacher accountability within a more general bureaucratization of educational policy?

  • Or should the increase in the use of psychometrics and "IQ-like" tests since 2000 rather be understood as a tool to empower the pupils/students and adapt education to individual abilities and interests within the framework of the so-called Knowledge society?

IQ and psychometrics in the pedagogical-psychological services 1950-1980 (Ludvigsen)

Testing of school children was regarded as a tool for differentiation and a crucial element for establishing a more comprehensive school system from the inter- war period, and in particular from 1945 onwards. From 1969, municipal educational-psychological services (EPS) became mandatory and was regulated through the educational law. IQ - testing has, together with various other forms of psychometrics, been institutionalized as a crucial part of the EPS practises up until the present, as part of the expert assessment of children’s abilities necessary for applying for special needs educational measures. There seem to have been a stable practice of IQ- testing in these services over a long time span, despite changing educational policies and redefinitions of the services` responsibilities and tasks. This makes it interesting to analyse the policies, expertise and practises for testing in EPS, in relation to the development of the educational system and reforms regarding integration and inclusive education.

This project will scrutinize the role of IQ- testing in the EPS, with a weight upon the period from 1969 until 1990. This part of the WP will draw upon the comparative analyses of psychometrics in the educational system in the WP4, and has corresponding interests with the postdoc project, as well as Christian Ydesen, Christian Lundahl, and Jim Porter.

Participating researchers

Fredrik Thue and Kim Helsvig’s study of the role of tests at the University’s Department of Education and in the governing of the school system from the 1950s, will draw on their previous research on the history of the University of Oslo, the rise of social sciences and pedagogics, as well as on the history of school policy and related professions in post-war Norway. Kari Ludvigsen has published a number of works on the development of professions and institutions related to mental health care and education of children and adolescents in Norway, including the intellectually disabled and the rise of intelligence testing in the first half of the 20th century.


Publisert 25. jan. 2022 15:15 - Sist endret 25. jan. 2022 15:28