Citation: Fellner, M., Altrichter, H. and Herzog-Punzenberger, B. (2017). Assessment and Diversity in Austrian Schools. Linz: Linz School of Education, Johannes Kepler University Linz, Austria
Austria has 8.6 million inhabitants, of which about 1.4 million, or 16 %, were born abroad (cf. Statistik Austria, 2017). Taking into account also the so called “Second Generation” (children to immigrant parents already born in Austria) 22.1% of the population are children of parents born abroad (cf. ibd.). In the school year 2015/16, in all school-types across the country the average percentage of students whose first language was not German was 23.8%. The percentages are rather different in different school-types, regions and municipalities. In bigger cities every second primary school child is multilingual - 48% in the City of Salzburg, 49% in Linz and 56% in Vienna. The differences between school-types and school-sites are also due to a growing percentage within every birth-cohort, a highly selective school-system and residential segregation along migration and socio-economic background.
2 School system
Compulsory school lasts for nine years, age six to 15. Additionally, the last year in kindergarten is compulsory since 2008. As the Austrian school-system is highly selective pupils are separated already after four years of primary school according to their perceived talents and potential. Based on the grades of primary school students are channelled either to a four-year Neue Mittelschule (acronym: NMS; i.e. lower ‘practical’ secondary school) or to an eight year Gymnasium (acronym: AHS; a traditional ‘academic’ secondary school). To complete the nine years of compulsory education NMS-graduates can attend a one-year Polytechnische Schule which basically prepares for vocational training starting at grade 10.
Since the school year 2016/17, the ‘legal guardians’ of youth must ensure that their children receive further training until the age of 18 even after completing compulsory schooling. Students may either go to a medium or upper secondary school (either academic or vocationally oriented), do an apprenticeship in the dual system of practical training combined with a part-time vocational school (“Berufsschule”) or do some other sort of training (like an internship, for example). Penalties for non-compliance are suspended until July 2018. Asylum seekers are excluded from this law. The diagram on http://www.bildungssystem.at/en/ gives information about the Austrian school system in visual form.
3 Assessment in Austrian primary and secondary schools
The grading scale ranges from 1 to 5, with „One“ representing the best rating ("Very Good") and „Five“ as the worst ("Insufficient"). „Three“ ("satisfactory") indicates an average performance. If a student is graded with three "insufficient" marks in the annual report school report, he or she will usually repeat the whole school year (not just the subjects he or she failed). If the learner did not succeed in two subjects, he or she can repeat the examination at the beginning of the new school year. If he or she has just one “insufficient” in his or her annual report, the class teachers decide – in consideration of his or her other performances ‑ whether or not the student is promoted (cf. SchUG, § 25, Para. 2).
By law, it is obligatory to use the ‘1 – 5 grading’ (“Ziffernnoten”). Alternatives to these grades are only possible in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade of primary school and in “school experiments” (SchUG, §§ 78, 78a). According to SchUG §§18, 19 and 20, grades may be substituted by alternative forms of assessment in the first three primary levels when this is decided by the “Klassenforum” (i.e. a teacher-parent committee provided by law).
The assessment in the NMS (‘practical’ secondary school) also uses the 1 to 5 grading, however, distinguishes between ‘basic’ and ‘extended’ general education at the 7th and 8th level of education in the subjects Foreign languages, German and Mathematics (which in practice, makes it a 7 grade scale). § 22 Para 1a SchUG states that each NMS student is to receive a “Ergänzende Differenzierte Leistungsbeschreibung“ (an additional differentiating account of performance; EDL) that identifies the strengths (not weaknesses) in addition to the annual report based on verbal assessment.
The grades at the end of primary school and of lower secondary school (8th year) are important for the promotion of different lower secondary school types and to different types of upper secondary education or vocational training respectively. Upper secondary schooling finishes after 12 or 13 years of schooling with “Matura” which is a special school leaving examination which licenses for tertiary education. While these Matura examinations were set by individual schools until recently, since 2015 (2016 in upper vocational schools) a new scheme is in place which includes centrally set written examinations, regionally moderated oral examinations, and a ‘research paper’ written by individual students.
In 2008, the parliament decided to introduce a performance standard policy. This included (1) the formulation of performance standards in Maths and German for grade 4 students and (2) in English, Maths and German for grade 8 students. Nationwide testing of these standards started in 2012. Test results are fed back to actors on all levels of the school system in an aggregated form which does not allow identifying individual students and teachers. Thus, the results are not meant for assessment purposes, but for system monitoring and for stimulating classroom and school development.
The assessment in Austrian schools is mainly teacher-led. After the third year of schooling, there are at least one or two obligatory written exams per semester in the main subjects. In all subjects, the performance of students is continuously assessed throughout the school year by various instruments, e.g. tests, oral participation, homework, schoolwork, presentations, etc.
4 Coping with linguistic diversity in Austrian schools
4.1 Extraordinary status
Students with first languages other than German may be exempted from assessment for twelve months, if necessary up to 24 months maximum.
4.2 German remedial course
For „extraordinary“ students, e.g. those who just started to learn German, a language course or a language starting group is available for a maximum of eleven hours per week. Those lessons take place instead of the compulsory subjects or during regular teaching hours in an integrated way. After the status of the student is changed to a regular one (after 12 -24 months), further support courses in German as a second language are available up to 5-6 hours per week. However, the student has no right to such a support measure. The offer depends, in all cases, on the organizational feasibility assessed by the school management.
4.3 Mother tongue lessons
Additional teaching in the family languages is offered as an optional subject with the minimum number of five students. In the school year 2014/15, 400 native language teachers taught a total number of 33 016 students in their native languages. The languages Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and Turkish lead the ranking (BMBF, 2016, p. 12).
In Austria, there are six autochthonous language minorities which have been living in the area for centuries: Slovenes, Croats, Hungarians, Roma, Czechs and Slovaks. For the three first ‘language groups’ specific schooling opportunities in their mother tongue are provided in the provinces of Carinthia and Burgenland; for the last three groups, however, there are no specifically designated schools or support systems.
4.4 Intercultural learning
Intercultural learning is an ‘educational principle’ (which is to be implemented in all subjects) in Austrian schools. In practice, many teachers are not aware of it, do not consider it important or do not know how to put it into practice as a study by Fillitz et al (2002) concluded. As a consequence, quality of practice depends largely on individual teachers’ or headpersons’ personal commitment, competences, and attitudes.
4.5 Language-sensitive subject-teaching
Within the last years, specific instruction styles and therefore teacher competences necessary for them have attracted attention in multilingual classrooms. The Federal Ministry decided to install professional development workshops and courses; this strategy aimed for having one competent teacher at every school who could serve as a nucleus for the further development of language-sensitive subject-teaching.
4.6 Competence centers
The Ministry of Education founded and re-oriented several competence centers in the field of cultural and linguistic diversity in schools geared at teacher education, instruction, school development. The Federal Center for Interculturality, Migration and Multilinguality (BIMM, located at the University of Education Graz) is a hub for all institutions of teacher education. It provides relevant material and publications, organizes conferences and sustains networks among relevant actors of all Austrian teacher education institutions. The Austrian Center for Language Competences develops materials and offers courses for teachers in the field of languages as well as strategies for whole-school development in the context of linguistic diversity.
BMBF [Bundesministerium für Bildung und Frauen] (2016). Der muttersprachliche Unterricht in Österreich. Statistische Auswertung für das Schuljahr 2014/15. Informationsblätter zum Thema Migration und Schule Nr. 5/2015-16. Wien: BMBF.
Fillitz, Thomas (2002). Interkulturelles Lernen. Zwischen institutionellem Rahmen, schulischer Praxis und gesellschaftlichem Kommunikationsprinzip. Innsbruck: Studienverlag.
SchUG (2017). Bundesgesetz über die Ordnung von Unterricht und Erziehung in den im Schulorganisationsgesetz geregelten Schulen (Schulunterrichtsgesetz – SchUG). BGBI. Nr. 472 (1986). Available under https://www.ris.bka.gv.at/GeltendeFassung.wxe?Abfrage=Bundesnormen&Gesetzesnummer=10009600 [05.05.2017].
Statistik Austria (2015): Schülerinnen und Schüler mit nicht-deutscher Umgangssprache im Schuljahr 2015/16. Wien: Statistik Austria.
Statistik Austria (2017). Bevölkerung mit Migrationshintergrund nach Bundesländern (Jahresdurchschnitt 2016). Wien: Statistik Austria. Available under http://www.statistik.at/web_de/statistiken/menschen_und_gesellschaft/bevoelkerung/bevoelkerungsstruktur/bevoelkerung_nach_migrationshintergrund/033241.html [05.05.2017].