Details of Thesis

Title From Data-Informed to Data-Led? School leadership within the context of external testing
Author Pettit, Philip Anthony
Institution Australian Catholic University
Date 2009
Abstract Schools now have access to an enormous range of data that can be used to improve student achievement. These data can include classroom-based assessment information together with individually tailored results from literacy and numeracy testing programs and from other sources. Also, there is an expectation at system and national policy levels that data on student achievement are collected for the purposes of program accountability and for improving student learning. However, there is evidence that schools are not effectively utilising such data for this purpose. This research explored how the experience of external literacy and numeracy testing and data utilisation affects attitudes to the tests, teaching practice and school leadership. This is a new area for research in Australia, given the relatively recent government emphasis on accountability, transparency and public reporting of student achievement. The research investigated the nature of and relationship between the themes of student achievement, the nature of educational change and school improvement and the consequent impact on the perceptions, by teachers and principals, of the efficacy of external testing within the wider context of educational accountability. With the research grounded in a Constructivist epistemology using a Pragmatist theoretical perspective, the emphasis was on understanding the nature of the research problem and on finding a way forward for planned action. Symbolic Interactionism was employed as the interpretivist lens through which to view how the actions of teachers and school principals reflect their understandings of, and their approaches to, the applicability of external testing programs to student learning, teaching practices and leadership within the school. The methodology for the research was based on case study using ‘mixed methods’ to collect and analyse data. Following the initial phase of meetings with school principals, three further research phases utilising survey, semi-structured interviews and focus group instruments employed a mix of qualitative and quantitative data collection methods designed, firstly, to generate themes for questionnaire design and implementation, then to obtain rich information from one-on-one interviews of selected participants from a range of schools. The final phase of the research considered the perceptions of key system leaders about the results of the school-based research for their support of teachers and principals in the use of literacy and numeracy testing data to enhance student achievement. The research findings produced four themes for analysis to explain the factors affecting how literacy and numeracy testing data are being used and led in schools. These themes are: ‘Attitudes towards External Testing’, ‘Leadership in Using Testing Data’, ‘Effective Data Analysis’, and the ‘Impact on Teaching Practices’. The study found that differences in perceptions of the value of data from external testing exist within and between schools. Accountability for testing results was viewed according to their perceived purpose, and the role of leadership in data analysis was seen as critical, but often missing. Further, differences were found in the way that leadership in data analysis and use is perceived within the school, particularly in relation to staff involvement in data analysis and whole-school planning using testing results. Finally, linking external testing data with classroom-based assessment was seen to have value, but was not necessarily operationalised in any systematic way across the school system. The lack of explicit leadership within the school was found to inhibit the potential effectiveness of data analysis and use. The associated low levels of access and engagement of teachers in this process further affected the ability and willingness of teachers to incorporate the testing feedback information into classroom teaching practices. The findings from this study demonstrate the importance of the perceived value of such data in informing decisions about student outcomes, and the central role of evidence-based leadership at the school level in utilising such evidence of learning. The concept of ‘Professional Purpose’ was developed from the research findings as a possible framework to explain the relationship between the value one places on external testing and the link between data analysis and use in an operational sense. This involves the interplay among three elements related to the use of external testing: its moral purpose, practical purpose and public purpose. Within the context of increasing policy interest in measuring and reporting student achievement in Australia, the central role of data leadership at the government, system and school level has been placed in sharper focus. The findings from this research advocate the crucial role of leadership in the analysis, use and reporting of data from national tests of literacy and numeracy as an element within the wider context of evidencebased leadership. For schools and systems to be ‘data-informed’ is not sufficient; to be ‘data-led’ suggests the need for an understanding of the ‘professional purpose’ of such data and its relationship with other performance information to effect improvements in student achievement.
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