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Exams in Extremis: Standardized Testing, Politics, and Crisis in the Middle East

Hilary Falb Kalisman

Assistant Professor of History and Endowed Professor of Israel/Palestine Studies in the Program in Jewish Studies

Thursday, November 19, 2020

7:00 P.M. - 8:00 P.M.

Zoom Webinar

Students taking bagrut Israel Taking the tawjihi 2020



In the Spring and Fall of 2020, the world has had to decide how much standardized testing really matters. In the United States, with levels of COVID-19 rising, few universities thought it worth their while to make the SAT or GRE a necessary part of students’ applications. In Israel, Jordan, and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, however, thousands of students practiced for and took their high-school leaving exams without incident if not quite as usual. Their parents and their governments believed these exams, and the futures they represented, to be worth the risk. How do some standardized tests come to matter more than others? What types of politics are involved in the creation and persistence of standardized tests? What futures can exams promise in times of crisis? Professor Hilary Falb Kalisman will explore these questions by discussing the history of standardized testing in the Modern Middle East. She will show how a colonial legacy of universal, meritocratic but out-of-reach standards forged regimes of high-stakes testing that persisted across crises, from wars to COVID-19.

Professor Hilary KalismanHilary Falb Kalisman holds a B.A. from Brown University and a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley. Her research interests include education, colonialism, state and nation building in Israel/Palestine as well as in the broader Middle East. Her current book manuscript, "Schooling the State: Education in the Modern Middle East" uses a collective biography of thousands of public school teachers across Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan/Jordan to trace how the arc of teachers’ professionalization correlated with their political activity, while undermining correspondence between nations, nationalism, and governments across the region.

Her research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Academy of Education, the American Academic Institute in Iraq as well as the International Institute of Education, among other organizations. She has recently begun a new project analyzing the history of standardized testing in Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. For the 2019-2020 academic year, she was also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Initiative, part of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.

Her teaching comprises Jewish and Middle Eastern History, with specializations in the history of Israel/Palestine, as well as the history of childhood.