By Maria Moriarty
Belzer, Alisa and Ralf St. Clair (2003) Opportunities
and Limits: An Update on Adult Literacy Education Columbus.
OH. The Ohio State University. College of Education Center on
Education and Training for Employment.
Opportunities and Limits is a recently published review
and appraisal of developments in the field of adult literacy education
in the U.S. between 1993 and 2003. It provides a concise overview
of the landscape of adult literacy in the U.S. and the impacts and
unintended consequences of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Act (1996) and the Workforce Investment Act (1998), both of which
led to changes in the purposes, practices and, in many cases, the
learner population in adult basic education programs. These changes
have resulted in increased institutionalization of adult basic education.
In addition, such changes have tended to encourage a fundamental
move in the direction of adult basic education provision connected
to employment. With this shift in focus comes a set of exacting requirements
for performance accountability.
The accountability framework set in place through the National Reporting
System allows programs to use any state-approved assessment instrument.
However, stringent reporting demands have led to an increasing use
of standardized tests. The result has been that, although alternative
performance-based assessment is not prohibited, the amount of research
and practitioner work in this area has decreased markedly.
The authors note that the National Reporting System “has radically
altered the discourse on assessment and is a clear example of the
field moving toward systematicity and limiting the range of alternative
While the authors acknowledge that increasing institutionalization
can be positive, because it provides more general stability in the
field, they point to the more negative effects of correspondingly
increased systematization. Particularly noteworthy are the areas
of assessment and accountability. Systematization limits the choices
that programs and practitioners can make about assessment methods
and instruments and makes heavy demands on programs to be accountable
for learner achievement according to pre-determined content or curricula.
In that context, the monographs and articles described below illustrate
some of the challenges faced by programs and practitioners in the
United States as they work to incorporate ever more demanding reporting
requirements into their assessment practices. They also discuss the
larger issues around learning and knowing, the general purposes of
assessment in adult literacy, and how to demonstrate knowledge and
prove skill development.
Merrifield, Juliet (1998).Contested Ground: Performance
Accountability in Adult Basic Education. NCSALL Reports #
1. National Centre for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy
In Contested Ground, Merrifield explores issues in performance
accountability and presents recommendations for policy and action.
She identifies key challenges faced by the adult literacy field in
the United States in relation to the purposes and goals of adult
literacy teaching and learning and the implications for assessment
Merrifield notes that recent research on literacy in its social
context has not yet been incorporated into adult literacy assessment,
practice and policy in the United States and hence the necessary
debate about how performance should be demonstrated, in terms of
literacy skills or literacy practices, has not been fully engaged.
In addition, the broad purposes, desired outcomes or goals of adult
literacy in the U.S. are not clear; that is to say whether the goal
is a literate population in the broadest sense or instruction to
turn out productive workers and good citizens. She also notes a disconnection
in relation to the mutual accountability of stakeholders. Legislators
and policy-makers have the power to make programs accountable for
money spent, but learners and instructor/practitioners do not have
corresponding power to demand adequate resources or to challenge
From a practical standpoint, existing measurement tools are inadequate
and, as in the case of standardized tests, are not generally compatible
with conceptions of literacy as social practice. However, the various
methods of alternative assessment do not allow for comparisons across
groups of learners or programs, and cannot measure against external
standards, hence such methods do not satisfy policy demands.
Since this report was published in 1998 assessment in the adult
literacy field in the United States has increasingly been conceptualized
in terms of standardized, norm-referenced testing. The engagement
with the debate about the meanings of literacy, the purposes of literacy,
and the value of various methods of assessment has been arrested
in favour of an accountability framework based on measurement.
Kruidenier, John (2002). Literacy Assessment
in Adult Basic Education in The Annual Review of Adult Learning
and Literacy. (pp. 84-151) Volume 3. (A Project
of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy
NCSALL) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
In this article, Kruidenier echoes many of the issues identified
by Merrifield but from the perspective of a field that has, in the
context of the National Reporting System, become more institutionalized,
and in which assessment, at least for the purposes of satisfying
policy-makers and funders, is much more likely to be based on standardized
tests and measurements.
Kruidenier provides a broad overview of the various types of assessments
of literacy skills, which he defines as reading and writing, that
are available to adult basic education programs in the United States.
These may include informal assessment, performance assessment, norm-referenced
assessment and criterion-referenced assessment. He examines and provides
a detailed description and critique of the various tools currently
He reviews the various purposes of assessment in adult basic education,
including placement, instructional planning, progress, self-evaluation
and program evaluation and accountability. As Merrifield does, he
recommends ways to improve assessment and states the implications
for policy, instruction and research. The article provides a comprehensive
description of the assessment landscape in the United States in particular
and introduces the issues of assessment in adult literacy in general.
Taken together, the Merrifield and Kruidener articles offer a comprehensive
introduction to issues of assessment and accountability in adult
literacy in the United States, and provide a starting point from
which to view the developing trends in assessment and accountability.
Adventures in Assessment. Boston,
This annual publication is intended as a forum for literacy practitioners
in Massachusetts to describe, critically reflect and share their
experiences of alternative assessment practices.
The four latest volumes provide an engaging and informative view
of the journey practitioners in Massachusetts have taken as they
work to meet accountability demands and come to terms with state
and nationally mandated testing. Volume 12 (2000) looks at practitioners’ experiences
with standards-based reform initiatives at the state and national
levels. Volume 13 (2001) addresses how practitioners work to satisfy
the increasing demands for accountability. Volume 14 (2002) continues
the discussion of accountability challenges through reflecting on
performance without using traditional testing. Volume 15 (2003) reflects
practitioner awareness of how critically important goal setting is
in the assessment process, and how difficult it is to work with mandatory
assessment instruments in that context.
Volumes 6-15 are available online at www.sabes.org/resources/adventures/.
Kallenbach, Silja & Julie Viens (2002). Open to Interpretation:
Multiple Intelligences Theory in Adult Literacy Education. NCSALL
Reports # 21. National Centre for the Study
of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL).
Open to Interpretation is the report of the Adult Multiple Intelligences
study that incorporated two linked qualitative research projects.
The first consisted of ten studies conducted by instructors and facilitated
by co-directors of the AMI study. The second was conducted by the
AMI co-directors in the same learning contexts. Research methods
included on-site observation, qualitative interviews and teacher
journals. The study is the first systematic effort to examine Multiple
Intelligences theory in adult literacy education. It focuses on how
Multiple Intelligences theory can support instruction and assessment
in Adult Basic Education, Adult Secondary Education and ESOL (English
for speakers of other languages).
According to the report, using Multiple Intelligence-based instruction
could have far-reaching implications for policy. This is particularly
so in light of the development of increasingly rigid accountability
frameworks in the National Reporting System (NRS) in which states
must achieve and report outcomes according to a predetermined and
standard set of criteria using standardized tests. Whereas the NRS
framework focuses on testing skills, assessment using Multiple Intelligences
theory focuses on metacognitive skills and learners’ self knowledge.
The authors highlight the need more research in the area of assessment
and Multiple Intelligences theory to demonstrate the importance to
the secondary outcomes such as self-efficacy and metacognitive skills
that can be overlooked in standard testing. The findings of the study
point to the effects of allowing learners to identify and demonstrate
their strengths, and challenging instructors to allow learners to
exercise greater control over their own learning.
Overall, the study raises critical questions about what is often
missed in more narrowly focused assessment that measures skills based
on specified content. It opens up the discussion about just what
is being accomplished in adult literacy programs, what is being assessed
and the purposes of assessment.
For a recent look at Multiple Intelligences in adult literacy and
practical support for practitioners using Multiple Intelligences-based
practices, we suggest Multiple Intelligences and Adult Literacy:
a Sourcebook for Practitioners by Julie Viens and Silja Kallenbach
(N.Y. Columbia University: Teachers College Press. 2003).