Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

High-Stakes Literacy Tests and Local Effects in a Rural School

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

High-Stakes Literacy Tests and Local Effects in a Rural School

Article excerpt

Introduction

I would welcome more skilling of myself to be able to unpack the mandated tests. I'm happy to administer them because I think they can give some direction to programming, but whether it's good direction or token, or whatever, is dependent on how well we unpack it and drill down into it. I guess I'm crying out for some help in that area. (Principal, small rural school in high poverty region)

This statement, from an experienced primary school principal in a poor rural community, touches on the complexity of the work and emotions associated with mandated literacy testing. Like most principals, he wants to do the right thing and willingly gets on with 'administering' the tests. He hopes that the results might 'give some direction', however he admits to being unsure about how he should interpret the results in order to decide on a 'good direction'. There's a lot going on here and we can hear his anxiety in the request for help. The principal was one of a number of school leaders from Victoria and South Australia who participated, along with their teachers, in our research project designed to investigate the reorganisation of educators' work in the wake of the implementation of National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). As did other principals in our study, he grapples daily with what it means to be working in a site which has been assessed a 'failing school' on the basis of a high-stakes test.

The project's design and analysis was informed by the Institutional Ethnography of Dorothy Smith (1987; 2005; 2006). The lived experiences of school-based educators are typically absent from policy discussions and broader political, media and educational debates concerning standardised testing. The work--emotional, everyday and pragmatic--is often invisible (Blackmore, 2004; Nichols & Griffith, 2009; Smith, 2005). Smith (2005), however, has developed an approach to researching how the practices of everyday life are organised and how those practices are coordinated beyond the local level, often by texts which come to rule how people go about their work. Yet it is people working and living in particular places who activate these texts in specific ways, eliciting chains of related actions with particular consequences for particular people. Following Smith, we argue that it is important to hear from front-line workers--educators in schools, especially those who are working in challenging circumstances --about what mandated testing actually does to everyday practices. Hence our research endeavours to trace in the talk of educators the activation of a range of practices associated with high-stakes testing. In the case of the rural school considered here, we discuss how contemporary policy is enacted in situ though staff's reported experiences of a school review, subsequent to the students' poor performance on literacy tests, and their efforts to improve student test performance through the ways they purchase resources, group their students, spend their time, prioritise aspects of literacy and so on.

In terms of our ongoing program of research concerning the relationships between literacy education and social justice, we believe it is increasingly urgent to consider the material effects of high-stakes tests in particular places. It is important in doing this to build on the work of others who have explored the compounded educational disadvantage often experienced by young people growing up in rural poverty (Green & Letts, 2007) and the challenges faced by their teachers (Somerville, Plunkett & Dyson, 2010). At the same time, we recognise that the principal's positioning as a school leader has altered with devolution to school-based management, performative cultures, concern with risk management, intensification of work, the emergence of new accountabilities, and the proliferation of educational policy and associated legal and financial reporting demands, and there has been useful work on these effects in policy and practice (Ball, 2001; Blackmore, 2004; Lingard, 2010; McWilliam & Singh, 2004; Thomson, 2009). …

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