Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Science - Centre for Comparative and International Education

Different Worlds of Meritocracy?

Educational assessment and conceptions of justice in Germany, Sweden and England in the age of ‘standards-based reform’


According to their normative self-definition, all modern, democratic societies are ’meritocracies’: , meaning that social roles and life chances are supposed to be allocated on the basis of individual ’merit’, not ascribed characteristics such as wealth or birth (Solga, 2005). However, the guiding ideal of meritocracy is quite abstract and concrete institutional structures that are supposed to secure the meritocratic allocation of life chances can differ considerably. This observation constitutes the starting point of the project.

In practice, educational certificates are often used as a measurement or equivalent of ’merit’. The measurement and comparison of pupils’ competences and performance through different forms of educational assessment are therefore a key operation in the determination of educational trajectories and, by extension, of the meritocratic allocation of life chances (Baez, 2006; Leisering, 2003).

As a key mechanism in the allocation of life chances, educational assessment has to conform to principles of distributive and procedural justice in order to be considered legitimate. These normative conceptions underlie the institutional structure of pupil assessment. However, what is considered just and legitimate assessment in education, and which consequences assessment is to have, is highly dependent on culture-, area- and actor-specific patterns of interpretation.

The project will investigate the conceptions of distributive, procedural and interactional justice underlying the institutional structure of educational assessment in Germany, Sweden and England. The project will also investigate how these conceptions are woven into their specific contextual and historic environments. The project will not just look for variation between national contexts, but also within national contexts.

The method of comparison chosen is referred to by Gita Steiner-Khamsi (2010) as a ‘contextual comparison’: a small-N comparison that pays close attention to the relevant contexts. Germany, Sweden and England were chosen as cases because research in the field of welfare studies has shown that these three countries are fairly typical embodiments of the three different ‘welfare regimes’ identified by Gøsta Esping-Andersen (Esping-Andersen, 1990). Each welfare regime is connected to a distinctive normative set-up, with far-reaching consequences not just for how welfare benefits are allocated but also, for example, for the division of labour in families and in working life. It will be interesting to see whether this distinctive normative set-up is paralleled in the field of educational assessment. In the German case, with its highly federalised system, the investigation will centre on the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

More concretely, the project will look at the following areas/types of actors:

  • The regulations that form the (legal) frame of assessment in schools
  • Teachers in different school types
  • Pupils in different school types
  • Examination agencies such as the English examination boards (where appropriate)
  • School inspectors. 

The project focuses particularly on the final part of lower secondary schooling, as it is at this stage that compulsory schooling ends in the three contexts investigated (with reservations for the German case) and important decisions concerning further educational trajectories and/or transition to working life are taken.

One specific area of interest for the project is the impact of ’standards-based reform’. All three countries studied have been affected by the international policy-wave of ’standards-based reform’, albeit at different times (Oelkers & Reusser, 2008). In all three cases, the introduction of ’standards-based education’ has had a massive impact on the institutional structure of assessment.

At first glance, it seems plausible to assume that the introduction of ’standards-based education’ in the three countries will lead/has led to convergence in the institutional structure of educational assessment in the three countries. However, it has been shown how path-dependant the implementation of new models of educational governance has been in different contexts (Hopmann, 2007; Maroy, 2009) and how slowly norms change, for example in the field of welfare (Listhaug & Aalberg, 1999; Mau & Veghte, 2007). A question addressed by the project will thus be whether the international wave of ’standards-based education’ leads to a standardisation of conceptions of distributive and procedural justice in educational assessment, or whether these conceptions are so deep-rooted that they resist change to a large degree, leading to the continued existence of distinctive ‘worlds of meritocracy’?


Baez, B. (2006). Merit and difference. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 996-1016.

Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). Three worlds of welfare capitalism. Cambridge: Polity.

Hopmann, S. T. (2007). No child, no school, no state left behind: Comparative research in the age of accountability. In S. T. Hopmann, G. Brinek & M. Retzl (Eds.), PISA zufolge PISA – PISA according to PISA: Hält PISA was es verspricht? – Does PISA keep what it promises? (pp. 363-415). Wien: Lit.

Leisering, L. (2003). Government and the life course. In J. T. Mortimer & M. J. Shanahan (Eds.), Handbook of the life course (pp. 205-225). New York: Kluwer.

Listhaug, O., & Aalberg, T. (1999). Comparative public opinion on distributive justice: A study of equality ideals and attitudes toward current policies. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 40(1), 117-140.

Maroy, C. (2009). Convergences and hybridization of educational policies around post-bureaucratic models of regulation. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 39(1), 71 - 84.

Mau, S., & Veghte, B. (2007). Introduction: Social justice, legitimacy and the welfare state. In S. Mau & B. Veghte (Eds.), Social justice, legitimacy and the welfare state (pp. 1-16). Aldershot: Ashgate.

Oelkers, J., & Reusser, K. (2008). Qualität entwickeln - Standards sichern - mit Differenz umgehen. Bonn: BMBF.

Solga, H. (2005). Meritokratie - die moderne Legitimation ungleicher Bildungschancen. In P. A. Berger & H. Kahlert (Eds.), Institutionalisierte Ungleichheiten: Wie das Bildungswesen Chancen blockiert (pp. 19-38). Weinheim: Juventa.

Steiner-Khamsi, G. (2010). The politics and economics of comparison. Comparative Education Review, 54(3), 323-342.