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Assessing and reporting literacy

Christina E. van Kraayenoord
Schonell Special Education Research Centre
Graduate School of Education
The University of Queensland


The Whole School Approaches to Assessing and Reporting Literacy project[1] was conducted in South Australia and Queensland in 1994 and 1995. The study sought to examine the assessment, recording and reporting processes in literacy of primary and secondary school teachers. The study occurred during a period of time dominated by the planned introduction of the nationally developed reporting framework, a Statement and Profile in English in South Australia and the Student Performance Standards in English in Queensland. During the study there was extensive controversy related to the reporting frameworks initiative and so the researchers documented teachers' perceptions of them and the implications of their use on their teaching. The circumstances of the study led to a broader examination of how schools and teachers assess, record and report students' literacy learning in their classrooms, and how these activities are facilitated or hindered. The researchers also examined how teachers responded to the needs of particular groups of students through assessment, recording and reporting.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE NATIONAL PLAN

The stated purpose of the National Plan (DEETYA, 1998) is the improvement of student learning. All the participating teachers in the Whole School Approaches to Assessing and Reporting Literacy project had this goal as their prime objective. Teachers in our studywere committed to enhancing their teaching practices and saw that assessment had a part to play in helping them make decisions about their day-to-day instructional programmes and in providing information about their students' progress.

One of the main foci of the National Plan is the assessment of students, particularly in the first years of schooling. The National Plan also states that students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 will be assessed and their achievement reported against agreed-upon Benchmarks. These Benchmarks represent a common mechanism for reporting.

In the mid 1990s the idea of a common framework for assessment and reporting was seen by many as a way in which to achieve commonality of learning outcomes in English throughout Australia. In terms of our study, the English Statement and Profile were seen as the determiners of what and how students' English/literacy achievement should be reported. Now, in 1998, the National Plan, and specifically the requirement to use Benchmarks continues the notion that assessment and reporting should be undertaken by reference to a some sort of description of performance - whether it be a minimum performance requirement or a description of performance reported on a continuum. The idea that there is 'a way' of describing performance is seldom challenged and such an idea appears to have become reified in the minds of some educational administrators and many bureaucrats. This may lead to problems in the future related to which view of achievement or performance counts and concomitantly, which view of literacy holds sway.

As Benchmarks are introduced teachers who are using nationally-developed statements and profiles, or their state's version of them will be faced with another type of reporting mechanism with which they must become familiar. One of the difficulties for teachers, as was noted in the findings of the Whole School Approaches to Assessing and Reporting Literacy project was that when the Statement and Profile was introduced the concept of literacy changed and the interpretations of what is important in literacy learning were altered. This leads to confusion. For convenience, rather than for sound educational and research-based reasons, reporting mechanisms with more simplistic notions of literacy may be adopted, instead of mechanisms that demonstrate the complexity of literacy acquisition and use. As reported in our study, the English Statement and Profile promoted a particular view of literacy which for some teachers was more all-encompassing but for others was at odds with the values of their school community, their existing curricula and their goals and objectives for literacy development.

All the teachers in the study were concerned about the increased workload that the Statement and Profile created. Many teachers referred to the dominance of assessment over teaching and learning in their classrooms. They regarded this dominance as inappropriate and inconsistent with their 'core business'.

It appears that the intention of the National Plan and use of the Benchmarks is to ensure greater teacher accountability. Our findings indicated that some teachers did see the introduction of the English Statement and Profile as one way in which they would become more publicly accountable, but that the majority of the teachers already felt and demonstrated a great deal of responsibility to better meet the needs of their students.

While the use of frameworks or statements of minimal achieve-ment may be one way of bringing about a common mechanism for reporting achievement across states and schools, great diversity in assessment activities and recording in classrooms was found in our study. We believe this is one of the strengths of schools in the two states in our study and in Australian schools in general. Principles of assessment that have been documented in the literature and that guided our investigation indicate that the teacher-developed assessment tasks allow for consideration to be given to issues of validity and equity. Our study reported the use of classroom activities which functioned as both instruction and assessment tasks. This is seen as a highly desirable practice. Such a practice could be under-mined through the use of external-to-school tests developed in association with Benchmarks.

The National Plan seeks to identify those students who require assistance to become more competent literacy learners. Our study investigated the way in which assessment and reporting took into account the needs of a diverse range of students in our schools, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, students from non-English speaking backgrounds, and students with disabilities. We did this by making reference to school plans and policies, and interviews with school staff and students.

Literacy plans or policies from the schools that participated in our study seldom made specific mention of inclusive practices. If the National Plan is to achieve its aim, then schools will have to work hard to articulate how assessment of literacy learning will meet the needs of all students.

In Queensland we found that where schools identified students for placement in special programmes, identification often relied on the use of whole school screening or the testing of individual students. For these purposes standardised, norm-referenced tests were common place. As researc hers we raised concerns about the uses and validity of these tests for particular populations. The concerns raised in our study apply equally to tests used in conjunction with Benchmarks.

We found that is some cases teachers had little knowledge of the efficacy of the assessment (and teaching) practices they used for particular groups of students. Teachers require a greater understanding of how to develop assessment practices that reflect the principles of inclusion and equity more completely and of how to evaluate these practices to determine their efficacy with particular groups of students.

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PRIORITIES

The schools in our study were in very different positions to respond to the nationally developed Statement and Profile in English. We found that teachers had little understanding or did not have a good understanding of the complex ideas and language used in the framework. This suggests that the introduction of the Benchmarks, or any other reporting mechanisms, must come with a very high level of professional development so that they are well understood.

One of the main concerns of teachers who participated in the study about the English Profile was the lack of appropriate professional development. In our report we stated:

More than anything else the data from the 13 schools in our study reveal the necessity for extensive professional development if schools are to cope with the changes associated with the introduction of statements and profiles. Perhaps the main impediment to whole school change in assessing and reporting literacy was the limited access that some schools had for appropriate professional development. ... schools in the study which had limited access to funding and professional development were less comfortable [and skilled] in addressing assessment and reporting issues. (Dilena & van Kraayenoord, 1995, p. 29)
The above recommendation applies more in 1998 than it did in 1994 and 1995. Professional development in the area of assessment, recording and reporting should focus on helping teachers and support staff in schools develop:

KEY RESEARCH PRIORITIES

A number of key research priorities arise out of our study. Other research priorities suggested in the section which follows emerge from ongoing observations, reading of literature and other investigations made into literacy assessment in Australia and overseas.

The impact of requirements in assessment, recording and reporting, such as the use of Benchmarks must be documented. While we now have some information about the relationship between requirements such as statements and profiles and teachers' workloads, there has been very limited research related to the impact of literacy assessment and testing programmes and initiatives on Australian students. An examination of the impact on students of the frequency of tests and assessment, the modes of assessment, requirements for certification and placement, and the 'trickle down' of requirements from the secondary school, to primary school and preschool is required.

The National Plan places a heavy reliance on a link between assessment, follow-up intervention and improved achievement levels. Longitudinal studies that examine, in a detailed way, the relationships between instruction, assessment and intervention are needed. Strong research designs are required to determine the efficacy of interventions over time, and to establish clearly which factors of the interventions contribute to improved achievement levels.

Important information could be gained about how teachers can improve the ways in which they plan for assessment. Action research projects which report the collaborative work of teachers and support staff in planning assessment and which record the ways in which assessment is congruent with instruction would be useful to teachers. These projects may also focus on the assessment of literacy across the curriculum and the development of more inclusive assessment practices.

A better understanding of the ways in which assessment practices are influenced by preservice trainee - and teacher beliefs, attitudes and knowledge could be developed through studies that investigated these variables. Beliefs, attitudes and knowledge related to student diversity, understanding of literacy development, and classroom organization are suggested as initial research points based on our findings. Future studies would have implications for enhanced teacher preparation and professional development.

CONCLUSION

The report Whole School Approaches to Assessing and Reporting Literacy has much to say about how teachers undertake one of the most important tasks in teaching - that of assessment. The National Plan has much to do with assessment also. In practice, the National Plan could be viewed as only about assessment and or testing, and in particular about Benchmarks. Let us hope the National Plan is about much more than these matters. The suggestions for future research and priorities in professional development in literacy assessment suggested in this paper manifest the hope that assessment, recording and reporting of literacy stays on the agenda in a way that reflects a broadening of concern and a desire to communicate to teachers and schools that their accomplishments are acknowledged.

REFERENCES

DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian schools. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm

ENDNOTE

  1. Delina, M. & van Kraayenoord, C.E. (Eds) (1996). Whole school approaches to literacy assessment and reporting (Executive Summary and Vols 1-3). Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1996_whole.html
Author details: Dr Christina van Kraayenoord
Schonell Special Education Research Centre
Graduate School of Education
The University of Queensland, QLD 4072.
Phone: 07 3365 6521 Fax: 07 3365 8553
Email: c.vankraayenoord@mailbox.uq.edu.au

Please cite as: van Kraayenoord, C. E. (1999). Assessing and reporting literacy. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 75-81. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/vankraayenoord.html


[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 2 Jan 2005. Last revision: 2 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/vankraayenoord.html