Students' understandings of educational achievement in a high-stakes testing environment : stories from Korean secondary schools
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The purpose of this study is to explore high school students’ understandings of achievement and opportunity through their lived experiences which are constructed under a high-stakes testing environment in Korea. This study undertakes a critical analysis of high-stakes testing and its intersectional effects in terms of structure and culture, attending to students’ everyday experiences in testing practices as these are embedded in certain discourses. Recent scholarship reveals that high-stakes testing reinforces a correspondence between socioeconomic status and educational attainment under the neoliberal educational policies of school choice, privatization, and high-stakes testing. In the analysis of educational policies such as the accountability movement, some studies contend that the political and economic discourses underpinning high-stakes testing are effectively hidden behind educational practices ostensibly aimed at raising standards. To date, however, there has been little attention to how students internalize the logic of neoliberal competition and how they experience educational achievement and opportunity structure within a high-stakes testing environment. Drawing on in-depth interviews of high school students from varying economic and academic backgrounds, this study found that students’ experiences of the high-stakes testing environment are influenced by their social class and achievement levels. High-stakes testing does not contribute to reducing achievement gaps between classes but rather reinforces educational alienation as well as opportunity gaps. Furthermore, high-stakes testing, as a cultural practice which affects students’ daily lives and their experience of curriculum and instruction, contributes to the ideological construction of students’ understandings of achievement and opportunity structure. While students experience structural constraints in achievement, they believe in testing as being a fair and equal opportunity. Concealing students’ struggles within structural barriers as well as their contradictory experiences in relation to ideologies of achievement and success, high-stakes testing becomes the medium through which students’ social desires are reproduced. An intersectional analysis in terms of culture and structure of students’ experiences in relation to high-stakes testing can help us to understand how the achievement ideology responds to students’ aspirations and also how those aspirations help this ideology persist. This study urges educational policies to focus on opportunity gaps and to look at contradictions and struggles that students experience in high-stakes testing.