Doing Well in School: Repertoires of Success at the End of Elementary School

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Elementary School
Minoritized children
School success and achievement
Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics
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Link, Holly

In spite of over a decade of U.S. school reform emphasizing test preparation and performance, students from minoritized backgrounds continue to underachieve on standardized testing. With an abundance of research on the achievement gap, we are now more than ever aware of this problem. But to avoid reproducing longstanding school inequities, testing practices and achievement measures need rethinking. This dissertation does this by investigating how, in a recently established Mexican immigrant community in Pennsylvania, children from Mexican immigrant and African American backgrounds negotiated the heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing in their final year of elementary school. Based on long-term, collaborative ethnographic research, my dissertation builds on scholarship in the linguistic anthropology of education to investigate how children communicated with each other and their teachers about doing well in school where what counted as success were scores of “advanced” or “proficient” on the annual State Standardized Assessment. The data in my dissertation revealed a number of negative consequences of the use of scripted, test-oriented curricula. For example, children who were consistently positioned as low performers began to develop oppositional stances towards schooling and to position themselves as choosing not to be smart. In addition, many children came equate doing well in school with simply passing the test, expressed increasing dislike of school-based reading and writing, and did what they had to do to “get by.” However, when given the opportunity to engage in collaborative sense- and self-making, they were able to challenge the ways they were positioned according to their test performance and showed deep engagement in learning. I argue for closer attention to the effects of school based reform efforts and accountability measures at the elementary school level by drawing on children’s underrepresented perspectives. Doing so will point the way to utilizing their communicative practices for increased school engagement and performance, as well as more equitable assessments of achievement. Without better understanding of these phenomena as children approach middle school, schools risks further reifying the schooling inequities reform efforts seek to remedy.

Betsy R. Rymes
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