Contextualizing assessment of literate-learning: Can Tony read and write?

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Virginia Tech


This ethnographic study explores how assessments of literate learning are produced in cultural and institutional settings. Focusing on one student, Tony Mitchell, I situate assessments of his literate learning in the sociocultural contexts in which the assessments were embedded. I examine: 1) the assessments of Tony as "unable to read or write" produced in his fourth grade class; 2) the special education evaluation process in which Tony’s abilities were assessed as borderline; 3) the profile of Tony as an able, literate learner I constructed as I worked with him in and out of school between December 1992 and December 1993; and, 4) the assessment of Tony as a reader and writer produced in his fifth grade class.

Data included documents, interviews, and fieldnotes accumulated over an extended period of time and from a wide range of perspectives. Analysis of the data was an ongoing process beginning with the formulation and clarification of my focus and continuing into the writing phase of the study.

Different cultural and institutional contexts produced discrepant assessments of Tony’s literate learning. In instructional and testing environments emphasizing the accumulation of discrete facts, a linear progression of skills, and the transmission of knowledge, Tony was assessed aS a non-reader and non-writer with borderline ability. In settings that recognized literate learning as constructed by students as they work with others in supportive environments, Tony was assessed as an able, literate learner.

Tony’s story makes visible the often invisible social processes of classroom life and the education policies in which assessments of students’ literate learning are embedded. It establishes that assessments of students’ literate learning are constructed. It illustrates the relationship between instructional, curricular, and testing practices and assessments of students’ learning. Through Tony’s story it is clear that to be adequately understood assessments of students’ literate learning must be examined in the sociocultural contexts in which they are produced.