Test-based accountability or ‘TBA,’ as a core element of the pervasive Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), has become a central characteristic of education systems around the world. TBA often comes in conjunction with greater school autonomy, enabling governments to assess ‘school quality’ (i.e. test results) from a distance. Often, quality improvement is further encouraged through the publication of these results. Research has investigated this phenomenon and its effects, much of it focusing on Anglo-Saxon cases. This paper, drawing on expert interviews and key policy documents, couples a policy borrowing with a policy instruments approach to critically examine how and why TBA has developed in the highly autonomous Dutch system. It finds that TBA evolved incrementally, advancing towards higher stakes for schools and boards. Further, it argues that school autonomy has been central to the development of TBA in two ways. Firstly, following a period of decentralisation that increased school(board) autonomy, the Dutch government saw a need to strengthen accountability to ensure education quality. This was influenced by international discourse and accelerated by a (politically exploited) national ‘quality crisis’ in education. Secondly, the traditionally autonomous Dutch system, shaped by ‘Freedom of Education’, has at times conflicted with TBA, and has played a significant role in (re)shaping global policy and in mitigating the GERM.
In the last decades, most countries have adopted data-intensive policy instruments aimed at modernizing the governance of education systems, and strengthening their competitiveness.Instruments such as national large-scale assessments and test-based accountabilities have disseminated widely, to the point that they are being enacted in countries with very different administrative traditions and levels of economic development. Nonetheless, comparative research on the trajectories that governance instruments follow in different institutional and socioeconomic contexts is still scarce. On the basis of a systematic literature review (n = 158), this paper enquires into the scope and modalities of educational governance change that national large scale assessments and test-based accountability instruments have triggered in a broad range of institutional settings. The paper shows that, internationally, educational governance reforms advance through path-dependent and contingent processes of policy instrumentation that are markedly conditioned by prevailing politico-administrative regimes. The paper also reflects on the additive and evolving nature of educational governance reforms.