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Open Access Publications from the University of California

This is Not Only a Test: Exploring Structured Ethical Blindness in the Testing Industry

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The other articles in this issue (Elliot, Slomp, Poe & Cogan, and Cushman) gather resources from the disciplines of philosophy, validity theory, law, and cultural studies to forge a new praxis of ethical writing assessment. My contribution takes a different approach to evaluative ethics, an approach we could term political. On the current political scene of writing assessment in the United States,[1] one heavy ethical burden lies neglected: the adverse educational consequences of mass-market standardized testing, especially the testing of writing ability. This article examines failures by two prominent testing corporations to take up their ethical responsibilities to protect the "primary good" (Rawls) of educational quality. One corporation's failure appears at the end of an evidently serious and good-faith effort to engage its responsibilities; the other corporation's failure results from its apparent lack of effort and commitment to that task. I explain both failures by pointing to the phenomenon of "structured ethical blindness", in which truths that stand in the way of someone's pursuit of profit are difficult or impossible for that person to see and to take seriously. My goal is to understand structured ethical blindness in mass-market writing assessment and to suggest how our profession and our society might best respond to this phenomenon. Based on my analyses, I conclude that testing corporations cannot fairly or realistically be expected to run their businesses with careful attention to the educational consequences of their products. Their unavoidable self-interest prevents them from seeing those consequences clearly. I therefore propose federal regulation and oversight as the only apparently functional mechanism by which to counterbalance testing corporations' pursuits of private profit with the U.S. public's right and responsibility to protect the quality of students' educations.

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