Volume 62, Number 3, 2020
Beyond the Tyranny of Testing:
towards a relational orientation
to educational evaluation
ABSTRACT During the COVID-19 lockdown, schools are closed, exams have been
cancelled, and teaching and learning are taking an unprecedented form. In this process,
two realities are brought to light. On the one hand, the pandemic highlights the
widening gaps in society and the part that the educational system plays in privileging
students from advantageous backgrounds, and discriminating and marginalising other
students who are already vulnerable. On the other hand, it also illustrates that without
the constraint and pressure of exams, students and teachers are provided with an
opportunity to collaborate and co-create meaningful learning experiences. In this article,
the author suggests that the gaps can be addressed and the potential of innovation can
be enhanced if post-COVID education is liberated from the system of production,
marked by standardisation and supported by tests and grades. To move beyond the
tyranny of testing, the author proposes a relational orientation to educational evaluation
which is formative and transformative.
The COVID-19 pandemic unmasks the glaring inequalities in our society,
where, without the structural support of schooling, students who are already
disadvantaged socially, economically and culturally are finding themselves
further excluded from education. The risks that vulnerable children are exposed
to include neglect, starvation, loneliness, mental ill-being, and physical and
psychological abuse (Maguire, 2020). Young people already at risk are further
endangered by homelessness, financial difficulties and gang exploitation
(National Youth Agency, 2020), as well as Internet abuse, cyber-bullying and
sexual exploitation (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,
2020). At the same time, during the COVID-19 lockdown, new approaches to
education have been observed. As exams are cancelled and the usual pressure to
perform according to standardised measures relaxes, for some students and their
teachers, education continues in truly creative ways. Curriculum contents are
drawn both locally and globally (aided by digital technology); engagement is
mixed-age (involving siblings, parents and even grandparents); and learning
becomes inquiry- and project-based. Students are mutually supportive (mostly
through social media), and teachers and students review their learning
relationally and collaboratively in dialogue with others. No longer constrained
by attaining grades, schooling outside of traditional classrooms can be enriching
For many students, the exposed inequalities and social injustice, and the
opportunity for unimpeded learning, have inspired more fascination about the
connection between the nature of our society, our collective ways of being and
how we must care for each other better. Likewise, they begin to consider the
intersection between health, well-being, climate crisis, the state of the planet
and their own future. Above all, the pandemic has prompted much imagination
of the post-COVID world and the redesigning of education. How might
education contribute to an inclusive and caring society? What kind of schooling
would sustain students’ enthusiasm and thirst for learning? How might teaching
and learning be restructured to continue to kindle students’ passions for world-
making? Indeed, these questions have been the focus of dialogue at all levels.
Amongst those who join in the imagination of a post-COVID world is the
French philosopher Bruno Latour. Latour identifies the greatest transformation
to be the overcoming of our current system, which he terms a ‘system of
production’. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Latour says:
What we need is not only to modify the system of production but to
get out of it altogether ... The pandemic has shown us ... a very
narrow and limited way of organising life and deciding who is
important and who is not important. If I could change one thing, it
would be to get out of the system of production. (Watts, 2020)
The system of production has long been identified as what hinders education
from being inclusive and caring (Gottesman, 2016). This is because it interrupts
the meaningful relational process that should underpin teaching and learning, as
well as education as a whole. Under the system of production, education is
structured around standardisation, perpetuated by summative assessment and
through testing and grading. Such a system encourages competition, privileges
students from advantageous backgrounds in our society, and alienates others
who are already vulnerable. So, to imagine a post-COVID education, in this
article I first reflect on the possibility of education being liberated from the
system of production. I then set out to address the question with illustrations:
How might we go about educational evaluation beyond the tyranny of testing?
To conclude, I imagine how education can be systemically transformed once it
is free from standardisation.
BEYOND THE TYRANNY OF TESTING
Testing and the System of Production
Although standardisation is intended to ensure institutional accountability with
a view to improving the quality of education, summative assessment through
tests and grades has long dominated teaching and learning at all levels.
Inadvertently, it has become the sole purpose of education (Kohn, 2000; Jones
et al, 2003). Critics have hence equated our assessment system of tests and
grades with a process of manufacturing products in a long-standing metaphor of
schools as factories (Jacobs, 2014). It is further reinforced by a system of control,
which judges the usefulness of teaching and learning only in terms of their
ultimate utility in maximising profit and the accumulation of capital. At a most
general level, schooling thus conceived carries an inherent tendency to
instrumentalise human beings and human activities, treating students and
learning as a means to the ends of economic growth (Gill & Thomson, 2012).
As Latour suggests, it is part of a larger system of production around which our
society is organised (Watts, 2020). This system already decides who is
important and who does not matter, and it follows the principle of ‘survival of
the fittest’, rewarding those who perform better and punishing those who are
not able to do so.
Unsurprisingly, standardised testing becomes counterproductive for
students. With mounting pressure to attain good grades, some struggle with
apathy and low motivation, some confront the resultant mental ill-health, and
others give up on education and drop out of schooling altogether (Harley,
2016; Brooks, 2019). The scheme of standardisation that is intended to
monitor educational practices to ensure that every child matters is precisely the one
that is pushing deprived children and young people further into the margins.
Teachers also suffer from the demands of standardisation and the measurement
of their performance through the test scores of their students (Hoffman, 2003).
Many teachers are forced to leave the profession because they refuse to
participate in such a dehumanising system.
There is no doubt that learning necessarily involves and even requires
formative evaluation. All learners naturally seek feedback on their learning and
want to review their learning processes and evaluate progress. The same applies
to teachers, who are interested in knowing how students respond to their
pedagogical strategies and approaches, and in what ways these might have
enhanced students’ learning. More importantly, teachers are already motivated
in finding out how to improve themselves professionally. Thus, evaluation is
integral to learning, teaching and teachers’ professional development. Equally,
evaluation is necessary for a school community to gain insights into how
teaching and learning contribute to its overall aim of education and students’
Clearly, the educational evaluation desired here cannot be fulfilled by
exams and grades. Instead, formative evaluation must be relational in its
intentions, processes, practices and effects. In fact, during the pandemic, it is
precisely this relational orientation of teaching, learning and evaluation that has
been accentuated, experienced by some students and their teachers and missed
by others. The widespread condemnation of the inequalities and injustices, and
our spontaneous extending of help and care to others, further emphasises a
collective yearning for human connections and the relational nature of our
being. How do we return the relational to educational evaluation?
A Relational Orientation to Educational Evaluation
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,
education is not a transactional phenomenon but a relational one. Its 2030
vision for education is thus rooted in human community and our
interrelationships. It has long been argued that it is within the process of
relating that the world comes to be what it is for us (Gergen, 2009). We draw
from relational processes our understandings of the world, meanings and values,
which, in turn, shape our moral and ethical horizons and inform our actions.
Equally, it is within the process of relating that learning is animated and
inspired (Gergen & Gill, 2020). A relational process characterises and underlies
our being, learning and becoming together. At the same time, from this
relational vantage point, and as illustrated by our shared experiences during the
COVID-19 pandemic, humans are not to be conceptualised as absolutely
separate individuals who exist prior to the relational process and who then form
relationships with each other. Instead, we are already constituted in the
relational process, and the relational is in part comprised in our well-being. All
are subject to the relational flow, and all participate in the relational flow,
including persons, institutions, systems and societies.
Within the relational flow, there are some activities that can contribute
generatively to the relational process itself, and to the well-being of the
participants. Many forms of dialogue and collaboration are illustrative of this
because they not only prioritise the relational orientation in the practice, but can
also further enrich the relational process itself and contribute to the relational
flourishing of the participants and the community. By contrast, other activities
can disrupt the relational process, with degenerative effects on the participants. In
the present case, these are standardisation, summative assessment, and testing
and grading. These latter activities are degenerative because they subvert the
very process of relating on which education and human flourishing depend.
Given the relational vision of our life and the relational orientation in
education, how are we to envision schooling that replaces testing with this
relational alternative? How might it be realised in practice? In what way might
the relational processes make a difference to students’ learning, teachers’ growth
and the educational system as a whole? As discussed, I refer to this orientation
as relational evaluation. I have intentionally chosen the term ‘evaluation’ as
opposed to such terms as ‘assessment’, ‘measurement’ or ‘appraisal’. This is
because the latter terms all carry strong connotations of independent and
objective judgement (Gill & Thomson, 2012), and imply that education is best
achieved through hierarchies, with the students at the bottom, whose life is
BEYOND THE TYRANNY OF TESTING
subject to the power of control from an early age. By contrast, as we shall see,
the notion of evaluation is values-based and situated in the relational process.
A relational orientation to educational evaluation is characterised by two
key defining features. The first is to define evaluation as valuing (Gergen & Gill,
2020). This is also to join others in stressing educational evaluation as a process
of valuing or appreciating the values in the activities of teaching and learning
(Gitlin & Smyth, 1989). In so doing, evaluation can replace the emphasis on
student deficiency with a focus on the potentialities, possibilities and
opportunities for growth and well-being. Valuing helps affirm students’ intrinsic
worthwhileness as persons, and support them to develop and grow from their
strengths, thus fostering hope and engagement. Valuing privileges appreciative
approaches (Cooperrider et al, 2001), and nourishes the valuable aspects of
educative activities and experiences (Gill & Thomson, 2012, 2016).
The second is to conceive evaluation as co-inquiring (Gergen & Gill,
2020). Evaluation can be understood as a shared process whereby students and
teachers (as well as administrators and families) collaboratively inquire into the
values and valuable aspects of the educative activities and experiences. It
therefore cannot simply be a fixing of a grade on a child for a piece of work, or
a judgement placed on a student for a particular exam performance. Instead,
evaluation involves collective inquiry, in which students and teachers enter into
a dialogic exploration aimed at identifying the meaningfulness of learning and
teaching, and appreciating how it contributes to students’ growth and well-
being. These two conceptual features together suggest that relational evaluation
should be aimed at non-instrumental ends and rooted in a common recognition
of educational aims as the holistic flourishing and well-being of all students (see
Aims of Relational Evaluation
In their current form, summative assessment practices such as exams and grades
primarily serve the purposes of surveillance, control and gate-keeping. This
model belongs to the factory metaphor, which treats education as production,
thereby instrumentalising learning and dehumanising students and teachers. By
contrast, a formative and relational orientation to evaluation engages children,
young people and their teachers as active participants in learning and sense-
making. As highlighted above, it appreciates the intrinsic values of teaching and
learning, and, in turn, respects all those involved in the inquiring process as
equal dialogic partners.
Relational evaluation serves three interconnected aims. The first is to
enhance the learning process. If learning (and students’ development and well-
being) is the primary focus of education, then forms of evaluation should
principally promote and improve the learning process(es). Since students’
enthusiasm, curiosity, interest and care for learning tend to derive from the
relational process, in co-inquiring its meanings and values relationally, the
learning process is necessarily enlivened. Without a relational orientation,
summative assessment can reduce learning to preparing for exams, and thus fails
to animate the learning process.
The second aim is to inspire sustained learning engagement. Learning must
never terminate at the end of a unit, a course or an academic year, but is
necessarily ongoing and lifelong. In its emphasis on co-inquiry, dialogue and
collaboration, relational evaluation can enable students to realise the
significance of their ongoing learning adventures, and sustain their continued
participation in learning. Summative assessment seldom achieves these goals, as
test scores or grades conclude and even close off interest or motivation for more
The third aim is to enrich relational flourishing. Evaluation ought to enrich
our relational flourishing in the classroom, within the school and beyond. When
the emphasis is on forms of relating embedded in the evaluative process,
evaluation can breathe life into the relational process that is central to learning.
Summative assessment through testing, grades and judgement creates a subject-
to-object relationship, and a regime of reward and punishment, thus
undermining trust, friendship and authenticity, and causing anxiety, alienation
The next question is how might these three aims of relational evaluation
be realised in the classroom and the school community? What practices are
available for pursuing relational evaluation?
Relational Evaluation in Practice
Despite the overwhelming pressure of teaching to the test, many teachers have
been continuously integrating relational processes in education and, in some
cases, in educational evaluation. Existing classroom practices, for example,
include joint project investigation, dialogic reflection and deliberation on
learning, collaborative feedback, appreciative inquiry and more. To illustrate
and amplify the potentials of relational evaluation, I briefly discuss practices
within four contexts: the first two are classroom practices in primary and
secondary education; the third is a relational approach that is applicable to the
evaluation of teaching; and the last is an integrated approach in the context of
school evaluation. Due to the limited space, I will outline the practices without
going into a detailed discussion.
Relational Evaluation Practices in Primary Classrooms
There is an abundant amount of literature that emphasises the importance of
relational processes in childhood and primary education (for example,
Alexander, 2004; Wood, 2007). Featured are joyful unstructured time and play;
safe, supportive and stimulating environments; open-ended exploration and
inquiry; an intimate and warm connection with adults; friendship with peers;
and nourishing relationships in families, schools and the community (see also
Alexander, 2018). These provide fertile ground to explore relationally rich
BEYOND THE TYRANNY OF TESTING
evaluative practices in primary schools. Examples of such practices include
learning-review meetings (Swann et al, 2012), formative feedback (National
Council for Curriculum and Assessment, 2015), circle time reflection and
deliberation (Gergen & Gill, 2020), portfolio work (Jones, 2012), peer feedback
(Boon, 2016) and project exhibitions (Malaguzzi, 1996). These practices
involve dialogue, reflective questioning and peer collaboration, and, in so doing,
are sensitive to children’s diverse needs, foster their curiosities, invite continuing
interest in learning and, above all, support myriad classroom relationships.
Relational Evaluation Practices in Secondary Classrooms
Adolescence marks a special time when young people live in a space between
two worlds: a child’s world of physical immaturity and social dependency and
an adult’s world of a fully developed body and interdependence with peers. At
such a time, relational processes become central to young people’s development
and learning. Secondary education can provide much needed social-emotional
nourishment for adolescents by integrating relational evaluation. Significant
practices include the Personal Record of School Experience, pioneered by the
Sutton Centre in Nottingham; the I/you/we approach to learning reviews
(Gallin, 2010); Harkness’s method of dialogue and self-evaluation (Heskel &
Dyer, 2008); the learning agreement, advanced by the self-managed-learning
movement (Cunningham & Bennett, 2000); and other more traditional practices
such as learning journals (Moon, 2004), peer evaluation (Sengupta, 1998) and
portfolio evaluation (Linström, 2005). Evaluative practices such as these respect
young people’s need for relational support and cultivate their responsibility for
learning. Further, they care for their well-being and attend to their voices, thus
inviting their participation and agency in determining the direction of their
Relational practices in the classroom can enable formative approaches to
evaluation to be personalised, rather than one size fitting all (Gergen & Gill,
2020). They are neither judgemental nor punitive, and yet they can enable
students to become more open to engage in critical reflection on both their
strengths and weaknesses, and actively seek feedback from adults and peers to
improve the quality of their learning. They hence hold the potential for
stimulating motivation for learning and providing spaces for genuine creativity
(Robinson & Aronica, 2016).
Relational Practices in the Evaluation of Teaching
Evaluative practices can determine teachers’ well-being, their sense of
personhood, how they identify themselves professionally, and the
meaningfulness they experience in teaching and learning, all of which are
rooted in the relationships and relational contexts where they work.
Standardised formats and the use of students’ exam performances as indicators
of teachers’ efficacy have done little to improve teaching; on the contrary, they
tend to generate stress, a sense of oppression and ill-being amongst teachers. By
contrast, relational approaches to the evaluation of teaching through co-inquiry,
reflection, dialogue and continuous learning can support teachers’ professional
development and well-being. Practices that are particularly relationally
enriching are those that tend to involve peer evaluation (Chism, 2007; Msila,
2009), team teaching and peer mentoring (Nilsson & Driel, 2010), co-inquiry in
collaboration with students (Gergen & Gill, 2020), and an action-research cycle
to improve teaching (Mertier, 2016). Good teaching embraces a community
where these multitudes of relationships are played out dynamically and lived out
in the classroom and beyond. The same is true with the evaluation of teaching,
which is in part an inquiry into and reflection on these relationships and the
unfolding lives of teachers and students in the community through
conversations and dialogues. The ripple effects can be far-reaching.
Relational Practices in School Evaluation
From a relational standpoint, the evaluation of schools also involves co-inquiry,
listening and dialogue. Take New Zealand’s national practice as an example. All
schools in the country are expected to take part in an ‘ongoing, cyclical process
of evaluation and inquiry for improvement’ (Education Review Office, 2016,
p. 6). These periodical evaluations include an emphasis on students’ learning
and achievement, the school’s priorities for progress, and actions for innovation
and improvement. Most saliently, this evaluative practice integrates the school’s
self-review and stresses both participatory and collaborative processes. It
respects the specificities of individual school communities, thus enabling school
evaluation to be tailored to the contexts within which the community’s interests
and needs arise. Another example is whole-school inquiry as an alternative to
the measurement-based accountability agenda of school inspection. It invites all
stakeholders in the school to participate in a collective reflection on the school’s
progress, and envision together how to advance the aims of education and
support students’ learning and well-being. Combining questionnaires, interviews
and focus-group dialogue, whole-school inquiry can inspire the community’s
curiosity about its processes, potentials and needs for change (Gergen & Gill,
2020). A sense of collective responsibility is thus invited.
In spite of their brevity, these illustrations of practice offer a sense of how
relational evaluation can be a meaningful alternative to the toxicity of
summative assessments, measurement and performance ratings. The final
question is: Will these invitations be enough to open the door to systemic
transformation in education?
Systemic Transformation in Education
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to envision a new
future for education. In the case of educational transformation, relational
evaluation represents an especially important step forward. However, the
BEYOND THE TYRANNY OF TESTING
possibilities presented here will not be embraced without criticism and even
resistance. Some may point out that we cannot ignore the fact that the pandemic
has interrupted all exams and thereby left many young people in a state of
limbo. Some may express genuine concerns for the need of ‘evidence’ for further
and higher education admissions, and general educational qualifications and
certifications, which are key to work and employment. Others may say that,
without exams and grades offering pathways for social mobility, young people
from disadvantaged backgrounds will have no chance to escape the cycles of
deprivation. Clearly, these concerns do not undermine a relational orientation to
education, but they voice the need for systemic transformation in education.
These concerns also invite us to return to where I started in this article –
in Latour’s words, ‘to get out of the system of production’ (Watts, 2020). In our
case, how might a relational orientation help shift the three interlocking pillars
of education – evaluation, curriculum and pedagogy (Bernstein, 1971)? Clearly,
the integration of digital technology already points to the possibility of co-
created and emergent curricula. Likewise, the recognition of teaching as being
beyond the transmission of knowledge and skills opens the door to innovative
pedagogies of co-inquiry, dialogue and collaboration. Transformation in our
collective cultural lives further lends itself to the development of relational
processes in learning communities beyond school walls. Especially inspiring is
the Cities of Learning initiative, which started in Chicago and is now spreading
to the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world. To a certain extent, the
system of production that Latour hopes to abolish has started to disintegrate
Hence, in a relational orientation also lies an invitation to join a global
exploration of its potential for humans’ being, becoming and co-flourishing.
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SCHERTO GILL is a Senior Fellow at the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for
Peace (GHFP) Research Institute. Dr Gill is also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre
for International Education, University of Sussex.