Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Compulsory Literacy and Numeracy Exit Standards for Senior Secondary Students: The Right Direction for Australia?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Compulsory Literacy and Numeracy Exit Standards for Senior Secondary Students: The Right Direction for Australia?

Article excerpt

In knowledge-based societies, sound achievement of fundamental cognitive skills can no longer remain the privilege of the strongest students. For individuals, such skills are now necessary for access to secure, well-paid employment, to participate fully as citizens, and to take advantage of further learning opportunities. For societies, improving student achievement at school increases economic competitiveness, promotes productivity and strengthens the social fabric through higher civic participation (Bynner et al., 2001; Vila, 2005).

In particular, strong foundational skills in literacy and numeracy are essential, and students who fail to achieve these at school pay a high price. Low literacy and numeracy achievement is strongly related to the decision to drop out of school (Marks & Fleming, 1998a; Rumberger, 2004), lower earnings (Department for Education and Skills, 2003; Murnane, Willett & Levy, 1995), greater likelihood of unemployment (Bynner et al., 2001; Marks & Fleming, 1998b; OECD, 2009) and weaker capacity to move from a period of unemployment into employment (Marks & Fleming, 1998b; OECD, 2009). The so-called 'Matthew effect' in adult learning means that those with weaker achievement levels not only start from a lower base on entering employment but subsequently have less access to both formal and informal training opportunities that would allow them to build skills further (OECD, 2003). Weak literacy and numeracy skills are also associated with poorer short- and long-term health outcomes (Bynner et al., 2001; Denny, 2003, and Roberts & Fawcett, 1998, both cited in OECD, 2009).

Policy-makers have been keen to identify effective means of raising student literacy and numeracy achievement levels generally across student populations, but especially among those whose achievement places them at risk of poor employment prospects and social integration. One mechanism some systems have implemented in order to raise achievement is the setting of compulsory exit-level standards in literacy and numeracy for students completing their final years of schooling. Overwhelmingly, such standards are externally referenced, tested through examinations and set as a hurdle requirement: students must meet the standard to be eligible to receive the system's senior secondary certificate.

But do such standards actually lift student achievement, both overall ('raising the bar') and for the weakest students ('closing the gap')? And aside from the impact on achievement, what other impacts, both negative and positive, are compulsory hurdle standards likely to have on students and schools? While compulsory literacy and numeracy requirements may prove a politically tempting response to community concerns about perceived falling educational standards, do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages?

This article outlines the research findings, predominantly from North America, with regard to the positive and negative impacts of compulsory senior secondary hurdle standards in literacy and numeracy, and considers whether the benefits are likely to outweigh the costs for Australian policy-makers.

Literacy, numeracy and standards

Concepts of literacy, numeracy and standards vary widely depending on the society and culture, the context, the purpose and the readership. For this study, the concepts of literacy and numeracy regarded as most useful were those that captured their connection to working within a 21st-century world.

UNESCO (2004) has drafted a definition of literacy as

   the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create,
   communicate, compute and use printed and written materials
   associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of
   learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop
   their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their
   community and wider society.

Changing definitions of literacy reflect the movement of society both for expressive and receptive purposes to electronic resources, focus on symbols and understanding of information presented in graphics. …

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