Communication strategies for enhancing qualification users’ understanding of educational assessment: recommendations from other public interest fields
Volume 39 Number 1, 2013; Pages 114–127
The complex, technical nature of assessment processes makes them hard to interpret by those without specialist expertise. The author recommends strategies for making complex assessment information more accessible to the general public, and by students, teachers and parents. Each recommendation draws on an example of how it has been used in fields beyond education. Efforts to communicate expert scientific knowledge of climate change have made use of the strategy of ‘framing’. Frames are ‘a means of simplifying and contextualising technical information’ via metaphor, allusion, and ‘carefully constructed sound bites that trigger new ways of thinking about and applying information’. The complex issue of climate change has been conveyed through frames such as ‘the pollution paradigm’, and ‘clean energy’. Possible frames for assessment information include ‘quality’, ‘trustworthiness’, and ‘dependability’. However, there is a risk that frames may be challenged as simplistic. Frames may also be applied in a sensationalist way in the media, or ‘used to publicise particular political, economic or social ideologies’. Another strategy is to present information in a way most immediately relevant to individuals in the target audience. This is likely to be more effective than providing generalised media information remote from individuals affected. The limits of the latter approach were illustrated in England when eight children developed regressive autism after receiving a vaccine. The media carried scientific reports that effectively refuted any link between autism and the vaccine, but researchers found that parents were much more influenced by face-to-face encounters with peers and health professionals, in which information could be contextualised for their own situations. Assessment information should, similarly, be contextualised as far as possible for the likely situations faced by teachers: shaped into guidelines with direct application to their work, rather than left as broad factual and descriptive information in reports. Harnessing personal and peer-to-peer interactions is a third strategy. Outreach activities and interactive websites have been successfully used to disseminate a range of scientific and health information. In a similar way, assessment information could be delivered to students and parents via the teachers with whom they have personal contact, and who can present the information in a relevant, personalised manner. Education assessment agencies could also use workshops to ‘recruit’ influential teachers, students and other members of the education community, to disseminate important messages about assessment to their peers.
Media roles in influencing the public understanding of educational assessment issues
Volume 39 Number 1, 2013; Pages 139–150
In Britain the media regularly devotes substantial coverage to the results of end-of-year assessments for senior secondary students. Media reports of these results have a powerful impact, and at times have generated legal and industrial action, as well as prompting government investigations. The media’s intense coverage of the results is due partly to their high-stakes nature, and is also influenced by the desire to build up stories during the quiet time of year in which test results arrive. A further reason, however, is the complex nature of the assessment process - a process opaque to the public - and how this interacts with the media’s inclination to look for excitement, trouble, and controversy. The nature of this reporting was investigated by a major study with results published in 2004 and 2007. The study found that media reporting of assessment results tends to be built around several ‘templates’:‘ecstatic successful students’ (most common in local newspapers), but also negative concepts such as ‘falling standards’, ‘grade inflation’ and ‘dumbing down’, which have the potential to be applied whether scores are rising or falling. Television tended to present issues via brief, highly charged debates between ‘pundits’ with radically opposed views, with a resulting tendency toward spectacle, entertainment, and over-representation of extreme views. Such reporting is likely to reduce rather than raise public understanding of assessment processes. The research also found that staff of awarding organisations tended to be poorly informed about the media, fearful of dealing with them, pessimistic about the outcomes of such dealings, and ‘seriously underachieving’ in their efforts to influence the media. A danger does exist that efforts to influence media coverage will generate suspicion and deeper negativity. Nevertheless, several strategies have potential to improve media coverage of education assessment. Agencies involved in education assessment and the awarding of grades could provide more information at times other than the release dates for annual results. They could seek to interest journalists in positive initiatives such as assessment for learning, and work being done to enhance equity. In general, assessment agencies should attempt to learn more about the media’s operation, and devote more resources to media liaison, in particular by employing staff with experience in dealing with the media. Another promising strategy is to use social media outlets to disseminate information and interact with the public.
Subject HeadingsMass media
The public understanding of assessment in educational reform in the United States
Volume 39 Number 1, 2013; Pages 52–71
Student assessment results are often used to drive reform of schooling, so it is important that the public understand the nature of the assessment system. However, public understanding of assessment is prone to the error of ‘mechanical objectivity’, ie the illusion that assessment is a purely objective process. In reality it is shaped by decisions about what to measure, and why. The public also tend to see assessment results in comparative and competitive terms, with schools separated into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The article discusses public attitudes to assessment during three waves of education reform in the USA. In the 1970s the public first started to consider schooling in terms of test results, as part of the minimum competency testing movement. An overall decline in students’ scores on standardised tests, and concerns over high youth unemployment, led to a ‘back to basics’ drive to see schools focus on reading writing and arithmetic, and the demand that students must pass a basic skills test in order to graduate from high school. There were also demands that test scores be published in a way that allowed comparisons between schools. Opinion polls found that most members of the public blamed undisciplined and unmotivated students for declining results, while many also blamed teachers and the curriculum; little blame was attributed to the social system as a whole. At the end of the 1970s public concern shifted to the need for higher standards, and moved from ‘the basics’ to demands for more sophisticated assessments that captured students’ higher-order thinking. Some of this push was framed in terms of the threats that poor educational results posed to the USA’s world status. By the mid-1990s, however, the standards movement was beginning to generate unease among a minority of the public, mainly around equity concerns. A third wave of change came in 2002 with the passing of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, which increased the policy emphasis on student testing, teacher quality and evidence-based research. From the middle of the decade NCLB itself began to lose support. Some commentators saw this in terms of public concerns about teaching-to-the-test, while others interpreted the public as wanting more attention to student behaviour and motivation. The article concludes with a brief discussion of the new Common Core State Standards in the USA.
United States of America (USA)
High stakes literacy tests and local effects in a rural school
Volume 36 Number 2, 2013; Pages 78–89
National literacy testing in Australia became ‘high-stakes’ with the introduction of the My School website, which facilitates public comparisons of different schools’ performances on NAPLAN tests. A study has examined the changes that high-stakes testing has brought to the work of a number of school leaders in Victoria and South Australia. The article discusses one of the participating schools, ‘Wheatville’ (pseudonym), a small government primary located in a low-SES rural area of South Australia. For the study researchers interviewed the principal and held a focus group with teachers taking the grades who sat NAPLAN tests. The school had been assessed as ‘failing’ during a diagnostic review undertaken by the state education department, who had launched the review after students had performed poorly in the first round of NAPLAN testing. One consequence was that the principal became involved in the national Principals as Literacy Leaders (PALL) project, where he received assistance in observation and questioning techniques and other learning practices which he might employ as a literacy leader at the school. He strongly valued these learning experiences. When he spoke of how this might be applied at the school, however, he focused narrowly on the use of assessment data to inform literacy and numeracy teaching. The project had made him ‘wary of teacher knowledge and judgment’ and led him to doubt his own professional knowledge; and he ‘almost apologised’ for raising the issue of resourcing. The teachers supported the principal’s desire to collect more information about students, and also supported the use of some standardised tests the results of which were more readily applied to assist student learning. On the other hand, the identification of the school as failing left some feeling stigmatised. They indicated a belief that ‘only standardised data count’ and that their professional reputations now rested wholly on NAPLAN results. They were also critical of the content of the NAPLAN tests, eg for ‘featuring content irrelevant to students’ lives’. The authors note that while the My School site aims to allow comparison between similar schools, through use of the Index of Community Socio-Economic Advantage (ICSEA), the ICSEA is unable to capture important aspects of Wheatville. The small student population meant that there were only about 20 students eligible to sit NAPLAN tests at any one time; the student population was also highly mobile. Both these factors introduce statistical uncertainty when attempting to draw meaning from the test results.
Home education in NSW
Number 7, August 2013
Home education is generally understood as education delivered at the child’s home by a parent or guardian. It takes a wide range of forms, including adherence to a formal, highly structured curriculum, informal and unstructured learning in which some textbooks are used, and ‘natural learning’ derived from daily life experience. In NSW home schooling is distinguished from distance education, in which children are still enrolled at a school. Officially there are about 11,000 children educated at home in Australia, but anecdotal evidence indicates a much higher figure. There is also evidence that numbers involved in home schooling have risen sharply since 2008. Supporters of home schooling advance a wide range of reasons for it. The main reasons identified by the 2003 Queensland Review of Home Schooling were negative influences from peers, lack of personal one-on-one support, lack of faith in the education system, and issues involving teachers. Other reasons identified by research include the health needs and other special needs of the child; religious or ideological objections to traditional schooling; ‘unwanted influences’; bullying; the impact of age-structured grades; and desire for self-paced learning. Against this critics raise a number of concerns about home schooling. They include the fears that home schooled children lack socialisation, achieve less well academically, and suffer various forms of abuse due to social isolation. The Queensland Review dismissed these concerns as ‘myths’. Other concerns include the lack of later opportunities for home-education children; a narrower curriculum; lack of educational resources in the home; and potential burn-out for the home educator. There is also concern that the movement represents a lack of understanding of the professional contribution made by a qualified teacher. The paper describes the operation of home schooling under the NSW Education Act 1990; the approaches to home education taken in other Australian jurisdictions, and the place of home education in Britain, the USA, and New Zealand.
Subject HeadingsHome education
Parent and child
United States of America (USA)
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