23 SES 06 C, Accountability, (In)equality and Social Justice
Standardized testing is not new in western educational systems. But with the rise of accountability policies in the late 80s, external evaluation seems to have conquered the enthusiasm of policy-makers world-wide. Under the imperative of school improvement, new school accountability measures will progressively set performance indicators in the shape of test results as a guiding reference, not only for pupils, but for every level of the educational system.
However, the weight of the social, historical and political context must not be neglected while considering this trend in educational policies. The form accountability devices adopt appears to be very heterogeneous depending on the country or region where it develops. Though, for the sake of simplicity, this great diversity is often reduced to the distinction between high-stakes accountability, generally referring to cases where test results are associated with heavy consequences for educational agents in terms of career or schooling; and low-stakes accountability, referring to the opposite cases where results are not associated to heavy consequences for teachers.
In each of these cases, the rationale concerning the role and the effects of external test on local agents is different (Maroy & Voisin, 2013). High-stakes accountability generally conceives individual behavior in the light of a strategic actor, whose motivation to change behavior is based on the desire to avoid sanction or to earn reward. On the other side, low-stakes accountability models rely on a more reflexive view of human behavior where results should allow individuals to have a better knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of their own practices. But independently of the accountability type, the basic idea is that results of standardized tests would be able to trigger behaviors that, ultimately, should lead to educational improvement. Beyond those principles, the theoretical framework allowing the explanation of the effects produced by external evaluation on local agents remains greatly under-developed.
A certain number of empirical studies have tried to grasp these changes, enlightening both intended and unintended practices as effects of accountability measures (i.e. Amrein-beardsley, Berliner, & Rideau, 2010; Booher-Jennings, 2005; Haney, 2000; Shepard, 1990). But the relation between external evaluation and teacher practices is not always evident. Sometimes, especially in low-stakes cases, teachers’ even deny their work is affected by accountability measures (Hellrung & Hartig, 2013). Thus, some scholars urged for taking teachers’ perceptions of accountability measures into account (i.e. Dierendonck & Fagnant, 2010; Schildkamp & Kuiper, 2010; Verhaege, Vanhoof, Valcke, & Van Petegem, 2010). Embedded in this line of research, the present study investigates the impact of low-stakes external evaluation on teachers’ work in the context of French-speaking Belgian primary schools. Thus, our main objective is to analyze how teachers perceive and legitimize external evaluation, the way they make sense of test results, and the link between these processes and their practices.
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