Making grades

Year: 1994

Author: Farrell, Lesley

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Questions about the control of access to education are recognised as especially complex when they arise in cross-cultural contexts. These questions are, however, frequently framed in simplistic ways. When issues of language are addressed they are understood to be primarily questions about the way in which non-English speaking background students might best gain control of formal English language and literacy and of specific generic structures.

This paper argues that current debates about the control of access to higher education must take account of the ways in which cultural values are realised in language and literacy practices and expressed in characteristic text structures. Language and literacy practices are centrally important in the process of "allocating people" and "legitimating knowledge" through tertiary entrance examinations. The paper examines the ways in which Anglo-Australian cultural values are evident in the criteria used to discriminate between candidates presenting for Year 12 external examinations in economics, Australian history and legal studies between 1981 and 1991 in Victoria. Specifically, it focuses on culturally-located concepts of "literateness", "relevance" and "politeness and face". It describes the way in which these concepts are realised in characteristic text structures and the way in which these structures are taken by the examiners to provide unambiguous evidence of the "academic merit" of individual candidates. It argues that the grade a candidate achieves in these external examinations is, at least in part, a measure of the congruence between the cultural values of the candidate and the cultural values of the examiner. The paper raises questions about the justice of distributing scarce university places on the basis of these examinations.