Based on the analysis of an assessment intervention to address literacy and numeracy performance in a selection of the most disadvantaged schools in Queensland in the early 2000s, this thesis explores the relationships between equity, policy and practice in school reform. Using case study methodology, it draws on and extends research conducted for a federally-funded assessment project (‘the DEST Project’) to examine what constitutes effective classroom, school and system reform in current times.
The thesis locates the DEST Project in the context of Australian education policy as it shifted towards neoliberal marketization and performative assessment, and provides a detailed account of the changing approaches to equity and disadvantage in Education Queensland. It shows how the social democratic intent of the DEST Project was increasingly at odds with individualized notions of performance and equity, at a time when the system itself had no clear theory of improvement guiding its numerous interventions for school change.
The study develops two analytic lenses to consider issues of equity and sustainability—Elmore’s notion of ‘backward mapping’ from the ‘instructional core’, and Fraser’s multi-dimensional approach to justice and equity—to ‘magnify’ those leadership understandings most likely to provide space for transformative practice. In exploring research on formative assessment, it develops Torrance and Pryor’s heuristic of convergent/divergent formative assessment to critically consider the role that pedagogies of formative assessment may play in achieving equitable and sustainable classroom practice linked to educational reform. It is argued that when factors such as socio-economic disadvantage are at play, sustained improvement demands the interplay of convergent assessment, together with a divergent move that takes into account students’ diverse identities and subjectivities. The power of formative assessment lies not in ‘techniques’ but in sophisticated pedagogical repertoires involving both convergent and divergent practices and a process that is dialogic, flexible and contingent.
Analysis of data generated during and after the DEST Project shows that while the Project was generally regarded as successful at the time, most Project leaders had limited understanding of equity and formative assessment, casting doubt on their capacity to support sustainable improvement. In all but two cases, equity was understood as equal access, and an overly convergent assessment approach appeared to dominate. Moreover, most leaders were unable to suggest strategies for sustainable improvement in practice and outcomes outside Project processes. By contrast, leaders in two clusters adopted a socio-cultural approach to equity and gave explicit attention to the interplay of pedagogies of redistribution and recognition (and convergent and divergent formative assessment practices). Moreover, there was evidence that leaders in these clusters were aware that reflection on the link between practice and outcomes was an issue in sustainability of improvement.
In relation to this Study’s central question, the data suggest that the majority of leaders were ill-equipped to support the responsive pedagogies and formative assessment practices that could facilitate sustained improvement for educationally disadvantaged students. Project management’s efforts to direct attention to sociocultural understandings of equity and educational disadvantage were not successful. The majority understood ‘equity’ in terms of access to the codes of schooling, and curriculum alignment as a linear process. An overly convergent approach to the pedagogies of formative assessment limited what could be achieved in the majority of clusters. Front-loading assessment, sharing criteria and standards, and explicit teaching potentially attend to elements of the hidden curriculum. However, data suggest that in a pedagogic policy vacuum, they were understood as techniques disconnected from efforts to support the learning of educationally disadvantaged students. Associated with this technicist approach, there was little appreciation that assessment data could be used in iterative cycles of critical reflection that potentially benefited student, teacher, and leadership learning. By contrast, leaders in two clusters demonstrated what Elwood terms a more ‘humble’ framing of formative assessment, providing a powerful reminder that other ways of working are possible.
Overall, the thesis suggests that it is difficult to sustain improvement without system alignment and support. In particular, it is difficult to sustain improvement based on formative assessment in a compliance-based accountability system. Across the data corpus, there appeared to be little awareness of the relationship between internal and external accountability, or that system leaders have a responsibility to support local capacity building.
The thesis recommends closer examination of the nature of formative assessment in Queensland’s classroom-based assessment regime, disrupting common—if not complacent—assumptions that formative assessment necessarily improves learning for all students. Using a backward mapping approach, the thesis argues that it is important not to underestimate the nature of the changes required to sustain improvement. Misinformation about the energy and professional commitment required at all levels of the system to provide equitable and sustained improvement risks unfairly blaming schools, teachers and students for ‘poor’ performance.