Review of Zachary Stein’s Social Justice and Educational Measurement: John Rawls, the History of Testing, and the Future of Education

By Sara Lovett, The University of Washington

Stein, Z. (2016). Social justice and educational measurement: John Rawls, the history of testing, and the future of education. 

In Social Justice and Educational Measurement: John Rawls, the History of Testing, and the Future of Education (2016), Zachary Stein critiques the American standardized testing enterprise and proposes reforms inspired by John Rawls’s philosophies of social justice. Though Stein does not speak specifically to writing assessment, writing program administrators (WPAs) and instructors will find Stein’s call for socially just assessment practices applicable to composition.

Throughout this volume, Stein applies John Rawls’s philosophy of social justice to the context of educational measurement in 21st century America. The arguments in this book stem from the premise that equity in education must be designed intentionally to create a fair environment for all students. A reader looking for a brief overview of John Rawls’s philosophies on social justice and the history of educational measurement would be served well by the introduction alone, but readers seeking recommendations for assessment reform will find value in subsequent chapters.

After introducing his modern approach toward Rawls’s philosophy, Stein reviews the interconnected history of measurement and social justice, providing context for the failure of current testing methods. WPAs seeking to reform current placement and testing practices will find detailed explanations of how educational measurement has been standardized in ways that discriminate against particular student populations. Stein’s writing in this first chapter and throughout the book is accessible to readers with minimal prior knowledge on educational philosophy yet useful to those who are more well-versed on the topic.

While most of this book is about approaches to measurement, Stein suggests in Chapter 2 that there are also curricular implications for Rawls’s theories. Extending Rawls’s ideas on civic education, Stein argues that schools play a role, either implicitly or explicitly, in forming what students’ value. This chapter makes a case for the importance of humanities education in a time when schools are increasingly focused on tests and outcomes. Writing instructors and WPAs may find this section useful in advocating for public-facing writing and the modern value of the humanities.

Readers who are unfamiliar with the history of assessment might consider jumping to Chapters 4 and 5, which elaborate on the origins of educational measurement as a form of (what was perceived to be) scientific, objective physical measurement, before returning to Stein’s argument in Chapter 3. Stein covers the origins of IQ tests through to their modern iterations, arguing that these tests fail to measure intelligence holistically and that college entrance tests like the SAT do not measure anything other than how to take the test. These chapters provide insightful context for WPAs who use standardized tests as placement measures for composition courses.

Readers might conclude by Chapter 3 that Stein is anti-testing, but they would be mistaken. Stein argues for reform rather than elimination of testing, stating that current practices reduce students to metrics and sacrifice fairness for the sake of efficiency. He advocates for a less standardized, more student-centered approach to socially just assessment, built on Rawls’s philosophies. Stein’s approach is aligned with directed self-placement and multiple-measures placement approaches, which are becoming more common in composition. As WPAs advocate for more socially just placement practices, they might draw on Stein’s rationale to support individualized assessment practices.

Applying Rawls to a modern context, Stein meditates on the role of technology in facilitating social justice in education in his closing chapter. He argues that new media offer the potential to work as catalysts for a more socially just education system but that without deliberate design, they may instead increase inequality due to unequal access to technology. Instructors and WPAs seeking to apply multimodal and new media approaches as well as ethical testing practices will find a compelling argument for carefully melding the two approaches in this chapter.

In 220 pages, Stein makes a provocative contribution to conversations on equity in education and socially just alternatives to standardized testing. While the book is not explicitly marketed to compositionists, WPAs and writing instructors invested in social justice in education will find this fresh application of Rawls’s philosophy relevant to the needs of 21st century students.