"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Efficacy of Literacy Assessments

My generative term for this week is “assessments.” In the report titled “America’s Perfect Storm,” we read about the perfect storm of “divergent skill distributions among U.S. population groups, a changing economy, and demographic trends of a growing, more diverse population.” (Kirsch, 2007, page 2).  The authors warn that if changes are not made our society could become more polarized, i.e. a high-wage earning minority with high levels of education and skills verses a low-wage majority with low levels of education and skills-- potentially threating our nation’s economic well-being and at worst, our democracy. 

However, what interested me most about the report were not the predictions and prescriptions, but the assessments or surveys used to substantiate the authors’ arguments:
·         International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS)
·         Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),
·         Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALLS) survey
·         Etc.

What I could discern about these assessments and surveys is that they are based upon the cognitive-psychological view of literacy.  They are designed to inform policy makers about the effectiveness of their nation’s educational system using comparative, decontextualized, skills based, quantifiable “measures.”  As an engineer, I am used to these types of assessments since they are a part of an engineer’s normal discourse.  Nevertheless, I am no longer confident that these assessments should be the primary means to inform policy makers.  

In the Belfiore book we are reminded that “context” in social practice theory has dramatically extended what’s important to consider in understanding the meanings of texts and literacy practices (Belfiore, 2004, p 254).  This is particularly important if we want to better understand, and assess, the literacy levels of those who are disenfranchised living within our nation’s borders.  Additionally, this same logic should be applied from a global perspective.  The IALS assesses “the 20 countries which account for over 50 per cent of the world’s GDP” (OEDC, 2000 p iii), but what about the other 173 countries (http://www.un.org/en/members/index.shtml) that constitute the bottom 50 percent of the world’s GDP?

By employing a social practice approach or lens to understand literacy were are able to look beyond skills alone to understand why people do, or don’t participate in literacy events or practices— a key workplace productivity factor in a knowledge based economy (ISO 9000, HACCP, etc.).  To me, these two aspects of social theory practice alone should warn policy makers that if you are really concerned about accurately measuring your nation’s literacy levels, and want to enhance economic growth by raising workers’ literacy levels, then the assessments and surveys of literacy must also utilize tools and insights associated with the social-constructivist view of literacy.

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