But at the same time, standardised testing is a concept which often divides the education community in Australia.
An EducationHQ survey conducted in February, reveals 44 per cent of the readers surveyed feel that standardised testing is an important part of a quality education system, with 56 per cent saying it is not important.
Nevertheless, in response to Australia’s slipping standards in recent PISA and TIMSS tests, Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has proposed another “light touch” test for Year 1s, to check their schooling progress.
The minister has appointed a five-person panel to develop the new assessments, which are likely to be based on assessments used in the UK that involve children verbally identifying letters and sounds in real and made up words, simple counting, recognising numbers, naming shapes and demonstrating basic measurement knowledge.
The panel will report back to Birmingham in the middle of the year. Dennis Yarrington, president of the Australian Primary Principals’ Association (APPA), says while the association welcomes the opportunity to examine the current practices happening in schools, his position is that a mandatory practice does not necessarily lead to better outcomes.
“We will get compliance instead of accountability,” he says.
“I believe we need to be building the capacity of teachers to be competent and confident in identifying learning needs,” he continues.
“This also goes for teacher education providers. APPA has a major concern about the teaching of reading, whereby too many graduates are coming into schools without the skills and knowledge to teach reading.”
Gemma Mirtschin, a Charles Sturt University paediatric speech pathologist with extensive experience working in schools across Victoria and New South Wales, says another national test is not necessarily the answer.
“So for me, I feel we need more resources [rather] than more testing,” Mirtschin says.
“I’m not opposed to a test, and I’m not opposed to a check of these skills, but one of the things I think the Federal Minister is missing is about 30-odd years of research in this area showing that learning to read is far more complex than this back-to-basics approach that he’s advocating at the moment.
“Assessing just phonics is really looking at only one element of what it takes to become an efficient reader.”
Mirtschin says rather than rolling out a nation-wide test, we’d be better off enabling teachers to identify and support students who are at risk.
“I don’t think we should be downplaying the skills and the expertise of classroom teachers.
“They do a wonderful job, they just need to be better supported to identify children at risk, and to have the resources available to do something about it,” she says.
Mirtschin says there are also ethical concerns around testing all, for the benefit of some.
She says testing students who are already doing well really offers no additional information for teachers or parents.
“So, to assess those, just for the sake of ticking a box, or just for the sake of assessing in an Australia wide rollout I guess, may not be beneficial.
“It may actually promote some anxiety in children who are being overly tested, for really no additional outcomes.”
Before considering the viability of a new test, it is worth taking a look at the current state of standardised testing in Australia.
While close to half of EducationHQ’s survey respondents feel standardised testing is an important part of a quality education system, only 16 per cent believe NAPLAN is a good measure of student growth and achievement.
Introduced in 2008, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) assesses all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy.
In a parliamentary inquiry into the administration and reporting of NAPLAN testing, the Independent Education Union of Australia submitted that “... the primary purpose of assessment and reporting is to provide meaningful information so as to improve student learning.”
However, since the introduction of NAPLAN, literacy and numeracy results have either stagnated or declined.
“We’ve seen more testing through NAPLAN, but we haven’t yet seen any impacts in terms of achievement,” Glenn Savage, senior lecturer in education policy at the University of Melbourne, says.
According to Savage, NAPLAN was introduced with the aim of achieving both equity and excellence. In terms of equity, Savage says the test has hit the mark.
“…it’s now really easy for policy makers, teachers, school leaders and parents to look at all the different schools in the country on the My School website, and see how those kids are doing in literacy and numeracy, which is really, really useful, from an equity perspective, because you can target funding, you can target programs and policies to schools that need it most,” he says.
But in terms of boosting excellence, he believes the testing falls short.
“But the other side of it, which is the claim that it drives improved achievement amongst students, hasn’t really come to fruition.”
Savage says the problem, in part, is how we are using the data which NAPLAN produces.
“I think that we, across the country, systems, schools, teachers, could use NAPLAN more effectively in order to track where individual students are, and also cohorts of students, and then plan interventions or responses in order to raise achievement,” he says.
“If we just do the testing, but then don’t do any of that work around the testing, then it really doesn’t serve its purpose in terms of the area of improving achievement.”
A common grievance among educators is that test results aren’t distributed in a way that allows for meaningful interventions or improvements in achievement.
As one teacher noted in our survey, “teachers can’t access the data until October when it is too late to be useful.
“As a result teachers and children must complete additional assessments, which is time-consuming, tiring and disengaging for everyone.”
As NAPLAN begins to move online this year, Savage says this will be less of a hurdle.
“One of the benefits of that will be hopefully a faster turnaround, in terms of, when the students do the test, the teachers then get the information faster.
“That will be a positive step, because teachers will be able to get the information about their students much faster, and then be able to tailor responses and interventions based on the data,” he says.
Another common problem educators associate with the test, is that emphasis placed on NAPLAN results leads to students doing more test preparation, in place of richer learning activities.
“The over-emphasis on these scores forces the hand of schools to channel an unequal distribution of resourcing into this area, resulting in severe neglect of resourcing to support and develop all other aspects of student growth, in mind, soul and creativity,” one school leader reported in our survey.
“Parents are supposed to have the right to take their kids out of testing, but have no power to control the “classroom activities” that essentially amount to months and months of NAPLAN practice,” one parent stressed.
Savage says in his experience, the way schools across the country approach NAPLAN differs greatly, and their individual approach can lead to an undue emphasis placed on the test.
“So in schools where large emphasis is placed on NAPLAN results, you run the risk of having teachers teach to the test, or spending too much time focusing on prepping students for the NAPLAN testing process.
“And that’s arguably not a positive use of NAPLAN, because, the way that NAPLAN was designed, technically, teachers should be just teaching the Australian Curriculum, and then if they’re teaching the Australian Curriculum effectively, they’re covering the literacy and numeracy requirements of NAPLAN,” Savage says.
“So, teachers are misunderstanding the purpose of NAPLAN, if they think they should be teaching to the test like that, but, it’s easier said than done in situations where principals might be pressuring teachers to achieve the highest results they can on NAPLAN.”
“So, if you think about it, it’s kind of like the ideal way that it should be used, but then there’s the way that it actually can be used in some schools,” he says.
In spite of the many and varied concerns teachers and parents raise about our national testing, Savage says NAPLAN has its place in our system.
“…what we have at the moment is pretty, I have to say, it’s pretty mild in terms of its impact on the day-to-day lives of schools and school leaders and students.
“So, I think that sometimes the effects of NAPLAN get blown out of proportion, and I also think that the benefits of NAPLAN, in terms of the rich data that it generates across the country, outweigh some of the concerns and issues that might take place in some schools.”
As a comparison, Savage points to the US, where they’ve had a significant focus on testing since the early 2000s.
As part of a policy formerly called ‘no child left behind’, federal funding became tied to testing, linking student results to the money schools receive.
“So that had a huge impact, and in a lot of cases, a negative impact,” Savage says.
“And also, in the US they, in some cases, tie the evaluation of teachers to student performance on tests … that’s a very different kind of situation from here, and a lot more intense than we have. “I mean, if you went into Australian schools and said, ‘we want to introduce performance based pay, and we want to measure the teachers’ performance using NAPLAN test results,’ that would be a radical change and I think that would be a radical change for the worse.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Finland, whose education system is lauded as one of the best in the world, takes a different approach to national testing.
“In Finland they still do national testing, but they don’t make the data publicly available through something like My School, they don’t have a My School equivalent,” Savage explains.
“And they also randomly select schools each year, for participation so they get a representative sample, rather than doing every student in every school.
“And then they make the data available, if people need it, to policy makers and to school leaders and so on.
“So, some people would say that that’s a better approach, because you’re still getting a national representative sample, but you’re avoiding the negative impacts of things like publicly available information on My School and teaching to the test and things like that.”
Coming back to Australia, Savage says with our present state of standardised assessment it’s difficult to strike the perfect balance that pleases policy makers, parents, teachers and students alike.
“From the perspective of policy makers, it’s really difficult.
“Because if you don’t do that kind of testing, and you don’t have websites that make information available, then people will argue that we don’t know how young people are doing … but then if you make that information available, and have that testing, you get unintended consequences, which can have negative effects.
“So, it’s a difficult situation, you just have to find a balance, but I don’t think that we have an undue emphasis on testing in our country.”
So do we need another test, as proposed by the Federal Government?
Again, Savage says there’s no easy solution.
“I understand that the government believes that it’s a good idea to have a better sense of young people’s literacy and numeracy achievements … but the question is, do we have to have a national standardised approach to that? Or should we trust teachers and schools to do their own evaluation and assessment and screening of students?” he says.
“I think it should happen anyway, so I think all schools should be committed to understanding how young people are doing in literacy and numeracy when they start Year 1 … I don’t think it’s a bad idea to test students, but whether or not it should come in the form of a national test, is a difficult question.”