Literacy as Numbers: Researching the Politics and Practices of International Literacy Assessment

One of the powerful aspects of contemporary quantification of literacy – literacy as numbers – is that the evidence produced through quantification seems to offer certainty and closure on what literacy is and who it is for. The technology of numbers and the comparative data-based knowledge produced through international assessments are creating a globally dominant literacy, a quantifiable commodity, a universally spoken language that has changed the way literacy is understood and enacted in policy and practice. What gets encoded in the international assessment data and rankings? How are the international assessment programmes and the data they produce impacting on educational policy and practice? How are international educational assessments reconceptualizing literacy and reframing education? Researching and practicing from the inside of international number production, Literacy as Numbers brings together scholars and experts from around the world to discuss the politics and practices of international literacy assessment.

Although numbers carry values and ideological choices through the conceptualizations and methodologies intrinsic in their production, they are widely recognized as objective, scientific facts, considered impartial, value-free and hard to argue against. Gorur states that numbers are considered by ‘many policy makers today as a neutral and apolitical representation of reality, a weapon against prejudice. The use of scientific evidence has come to be seen as a hallmark of integrity in policy making’ (2011: 90). But Rose reminds us that ‘numbers render invisible and hence incontestable the complex array of judgments and decisions that go into a measurement, a scale, a number (1999: 208).

Debates about the nature of literacy and how to account for the diversity of everyday practices are far from resolved. In fact, these debates are more fascinating and challenging than ever before. Literacy is presented in the book as a contested territory, which is currently being subjected to new forms of codification and institutionalisation. This makes it a particularly important arena for exploring the processes whereby the diversity of everyday experiences and practices gives way to an ordered field of measurement. We can observe how the field of adult literacy is being re-positioned within the discourse of large-scale assessments, and trace the links that are established with themes such as employability, citizenship and opportunity.

The project of reframing literacy around globalized assessment regimes of standardised literacy assessment is clearly still in progress. While the testing agencies – acting as ‘centres of calculation’ in the sense described by Latour and Woolgar (1979) – are motivated to present assessment programmes and their methods as unproblematic and routinised procedures, it appears to us that their black boxes are not yet sealed. In these processes of innovation and expansion, debates are necessarily raised about the efficacy, merits and validity of transnational assessment programmes, about their new institutional architecture and their governance and accountability. The insider approach taken by contributors of this book reveals that such debates are happening at all levels of the production and use of the survey findings, though much of the discussion remains inaccessible to the public gaze. Literacy as Numbers opens up the processes of international assessment to the public gaze and uncovers the complexity and the political agendas hidden by the simplicity and usability of literacy as numbers.

Literacy as Numbers is a co-edited collection of papers, most of which were presented at the International Symposium Literacy as Numbers which took place at the Institute of Education in London in June 2013. It is edited by Mary Hamilton, Bryan Maddox and Camilla Addey, and published by Cambridge University Press in March 2015.


Dr Camilla Addey, University of East Anglia, UK