School: evaluation, capable of the best, guilty of the worst


The question of evaluation at school comes back to the fore. While the Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, intends to develop a culture of evaluation, new assessments of students are now planned mid-CP, CE1, and second. An “evaluation body”, dedicated to the appreciation of institutions, is being created for 2019, while MPs Marie Tamarelle-Verhaeghe and Régis Juanico have just submitted their report on the evaluation of the school system.

And, as always, the irruption of this subject triggers polemics, raising as many hopes as fears. How to explain this polarization? Should we see in the evaluator a social actor always quartered?

A simple “GPS” function?

To evaluate is to measure the acceptability of a given reality – individual, institution, situation, political – by reference to specific expectations, in order to say its value. Whether awarding a Nobel Prize, nominating the best pastry chef, appreciating government action, or noting a copy, the stakes are the same. If it is not always and inevitably to classify those we measure.

From the point of view of the conduct of actions, evaluation is a necessity. To reach a goal, it is better to know where we are in relation to him! This is its first and, so to speak, natural function: to accompany actors involved in a process (teaching, learning, transforming social relationships, etc.) by shedding light on their situation in relation to their objective. We could talk about a “GPS” function. The evaluation is totally legitimate here. It concretizes the will to live with open eyes.

But evaluation does not just illuminate by situating. She judges. A judgment, even of “acceptability,” is a judgment. So, on the one hand, being judged produces stress. He who knows that he is being evaluated may lose some of his means, in a situation for him a-normal.

The evaluator, on the other hand, runs the risk of sinking into the intoxication that gives the power to judge. And then give in to the temptation of the abuse of power, in an asymmetrical or complementary relationship, which places it in a high position compared to evaluated in the low position. It will take great strength of mind to resist what Patrice Ranjard (1984) described as “persecutory pleasure”  : “the omnipotence of note: a pleasure that comes from the underworld”.

Between valorization and balance of power

With the ambition of saying value, evaluation should firstly, and logically, contribute to the valuation of those to whom it relates. It’s about saying what a copy, a student, a policy is worth. The evaluator theoretically assumes that what he evaluates has a minimum of value, except to lock himself into a negative concept of value, which could tend towards nullity – and even go below zero? In this sense the evaluation should always be benevolent, and not to refrain from highlighting progressions and successes.

But the temptation of the devaluing glance will be all the stronger as the “values” in the name of which one judges push in this direction. It is by valuing expectations (those whose appreciation we appreciate) that evaluation is value-creating. And what are the values ​​on whose behalf these expectations are valued? For example, do competition, competitiveness, performance, profitability really deserve to be valued  ? There is a risk of imposing questionable “values”, which are, in fact, only the values ​​of time. At a time dominated by a socio-economic model that imposes the law of the market.

The dominant use of evaluation as a social practice tends to fit into this model. Concretely, the evaluation will valorize relations of competition which are only reports of strength and domination. To make, as Illich deplored it since 1971 , the apprenticeship of the submission. We soon know only to “go under the fog” …

At the heart of the evaluation, a revealing ambiguity

One remembers the word of Pascal: “the man is neither angel nor beast, and the misfortune is that who wants to make the angel makes the beast”. Evaluative practices are marked by an ambiguity that is only the expression of a fundamental human ambiguity. Because the man, who is always capable of the best, is also, alas, too often, guilty of the worst. Evaluation, one of the most common cognitive activities in humans, is no exception.

The evaluation is capable of the best when, never forgetting a first imperative of objectivity – within the framework of a technically rigorous approach -, its first will is to put the lighting which it brings to the service of the promotion. and the development of those it enlightens – in the context of a humanist will. She is guilty of the worst when, to the technical errors (in particular the ignorance of the biases which weigh on her), are added ethical uses ethically contestable. This is the case when an acute “selection” is put at the service of social reproduction.

And again: the selection can be done more or less stupidly (negative evaluation! I could have said, in the context of a positive or benevolent evaluation: more or less intelligently)! The first year film on health studies just gave a good example. How can we be satisfied with the most archaic and the most primary of the tests (a multiple choice) to select future professionals who, in their exercise, will need much more than just the capacity of memory frenzied? By making it almost impossible to truly learn, a method of evaluation can distort studies, and make future doctors ill.

Finally, and as in the “Star Wars”, who will prevail, on the dark side, or bright, the evaluation … and humanity? One thing is certain. The fight for a humanistic evaluation goes hand in hand with the fight for a more humane society. The challenge of evaluation in school is only the school side of a challenge facing all men.

If it is never won in advance, the struggle for an evaluation “in the service of all students”becomes, because “humanity (in its luminous face) obliges”, a compelling duty for all educators and teachers . Knowing that man “has in him a nature capable of good” (Pascal), one should never despair … not even of evaluation!

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is an Honorary Professor (Education Sciences) at the University Grenoble Alpes