This is part two of the Need for Social Justice in Schools series.
Headlines such as “PISA shows Indigenous students continue to struggle” (ACER, 2007) reflect areas of real inequity in Australia’s education system. Reports (Thomson, 2008) indicate that Australia's lowest-performing students are most likely to come from Indigenous communities, geographically remote areas and poor socioeconomic backgrounds. These results indicate that in Australia issues of inequity need to be addressed to ensure access to quality education for all students (Thomson, 2008).
It is important in terms of equity to consider the choice of knowledge and skills selected for the assessments. To achieve equity the curriculum must include valued knowledge and skills consisting of different kinds of cultural knowledge and experience, reflective of all groups, not privileging one group to the exclusion of others.
The goal of assessment must be that students of all groups have equal opportunity to demonstrate best performance, thus ensuring equitable, if not equal, outcomes (Gray & Sharp, 2001). Wolf et al., (1991) contend that education systems increase equality by the employing performance assessments as they allow for the integration of instruction and assessment in authentic, situated or localised means. This form of assessment is compatible with constructivist theories of learning within and across cultures (Garcia & Pearson, 1994).
The multi-dimensionality and flexibility of performance assessment form the bases of its suitability as an assessment system for a culturally diverse society. Aboriginal society is itself highly diverse with a wide range of linguistic and social patterns and aspirations, from rural, traditionally-oriented bilingual children to urban, English-speaking upwardly-mobile students and a host of variations in between (Warren and de Vries, 2008).
Traditional Aboriginal learning focuses on acquisition of real-life skills by observation and imitation (Folds, 1987). As a result, significant errors in the acquisition of these skills were rare. The implications for culturally sensitive assessments bring to light the need for assessments to be embedded in whole, real-life tasks, not imposed as isolated, decontextualised tests. Collaborative effort should also be valued in recognition that knowledge acquisition is a social process (Wolf et al., 1991).
In a culturally diverse society, flexible performance assessments are more likely to maximise fairness than standardised testing (Garcia & Pearson, 1994). Through the acknowledgement of the socio-political nature of educational assessment and the elimination of performance deficit theories among minorities the issue of equity begin to disseminate (Habibis and Walter, 2009).
Equity or fairness in assessment is a complex issue. Attention to whether all students have access to learning, how the curriculum and standards are defined and taught and how achievement in the curriculum is interpreted are equally important considerations. As facilitators of learning, the desire is to create a learning environment in which students would question, discuss, gain new insights, and collectively solve problems. In essence the education system requires teachers to equip children with strategies for rigorous intellectual activity (Wiggins, 1993) in culturally relevant contexts and using assessments that reflect and commend each child's progress. In taking this stand, teachers challenge practices that contribute to inequities and make curriculum decision that promote inclusion and participate of all children. This commitment to expertise and professional practice is central to improving student learning outcomes. In supporting current learning theory, honouring diversity and encouraging equitable assessment, situated performance assessments appear to show the way forward to educational justice for all children.
Australian Council for Educational Research (2007) PISA shows Indigenous students continue to struggle, Media Release, Camberwell: ACER.
Folds, R. (1987) Whitefella school. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
Garcia, G. E. & Pearson, P. D. (1994). Assessment and diversity. Review of Research in Education, 20, 337-391.
Gray & Sharp (2001) Mode of Assessment and its Effect on Children's Performance in Science. Evaluation & Research in Education, Volume 15, Issue 2, October 2001, 55 – 68.
Habibis, D. & Walter, M.M. (2009), Social Inequality in Australia, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.
Thomson, S (2008) Lessons to learn from high achievers, The Age http://www.theage.com.au/news/education-news/lessons-to-learn-from-high-achievers/2008/02/01/1201801039731.html
Warren, E. & de Vries, E. (2007) Australian Indigenous students: The role of oral language and representations in the negotiation of mathematical understanding. In J. Watson & K. Beswick (Eds) Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Mathematics Educational Research Group of Australia, Victoria: MERGA Inc.
Wiggins, G. (1993). Assessing student performance: Exploring the purpose and limits of testing. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Wolf, D., Bixby, J., Glenn, J. & Gardner, H. (1991). To use their minds well: Investigating new forms of student assessment. In G. Grant (Ed.), Review of Research in Education, 17, (pp. 31-125). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.