Constructing the “Competent” Pupil: Optimizing Human Futures Through Testing?

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2803

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Constructing the “Competent” Pupil: Optimizing Human Futures Through Testing?

  • Stephan Dahmen Faculty for Educational Science, Bielefeld University, Germany

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Abstract:  In the last decade, the German transition system has witnessed the large‐scale introduction of so‐called “analysis of potentials” (Potenzialanalysen) in secondary compulsory schooling. In most German Länder, 8th graders must participate in a two‐day assessment center which combines psychometric testing with observations of their social and professional competencies in pre‐specified tasks. The programmatic aim of these assessments is to “introduce pupils early to choosing a job” (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung [BMBF], 2017, p. 2) as well as to enhance the propensity of pupils to “take responsibility for their own future” (BMBF, 2017, p. 9). In the context of the German school‐to‐work system, the introduction of these new forms of diagnostics bear witness to a new preventive political rationality that aims at reducing the entry age into upper secondary education, reduce the recourse to so‐called “transition measures” and optimizing transitions into an apprenticeship market that is characterized by structural inequalities and “mismatch” between pupils’ job aspirations and the offers in apprenticeship places. However, little is known on the role of competency testing devices for the construction of further trajectories and aspirations and their role in the reproduction of inequalities in transitions from school to work. Based on an in‐depth analysis of policy documents and competency profiles (the documents handed out to the pupils after undergoing testing), the article reconstructs the political rationale for the introduction of the so‐called Potenzialanalysen. Based on a Foucauldian framework, we show how pupils are constructed as “competent” subjects. We show that competency assessments are part and parcel of a political rationality that aims at the promotion of a specific (future‐oriented, optimized, self‐regulated) relation to one’s own biographical future on the side of the pupils. Our results demonstrate that competency profiles construct the process of choosing a job as an individualized project of the self and that they invisibilize structural barriers and power relations. In doing so, competency assessments potentially contribute to the reproduction of inequalities in post‐secondary education through delegating “cooling out” processes from institutional gatekeepers to the interiority of persons.

Keywords:  career guidance; competencies; education policy; Germany; governmentality studies; institutional ethnography; school‐to‐work‐transitions; subjectivation; testing; vocational education and training



© Stephan Dahmen. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.