The recent Whitlam Institute study of the impact of high stakes testing on school students shows that the annual NAPLAN tests place undue pressure on children and cause unwarranted stress and even illness. While this impact of high stakes testing on students is a concern, the more important issue is how this narrow focus and over emphasis on basic skills testing is distorting Australia’s education policy, undermining quality and in particular doing little to assist disadvantaged students.
As the Commonwealth continues its protracted negotiations with the states and territories on the Gonski funding model and a National School Improvement Plan, NAPLAN test results are becoming more deeply embedded in education policy. They are the proxy measure of school quality and the very basis of the Gonski funding model: the high performing schools whose costs will determine the level of the new schooling resource standard are selected on the basis of their NAPLAN results. Achievement levels in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy define school quality. Attainment of basic skills has been elevated to the major steering mechanism of schooling.
In following this path, Australia is out of step with the evidence about effective education policies. While the U.K. and the U.S. are stepping back from their over-emphasis on narrow basic skills tests, Australia is charging ahead, taking their role to an extreme. We are committed to using the tests to drive funding and accountability decisions that go way beyond the capacity of the tests to support, ignoring evidence that the tests may be unreliable, are definitely partial, constrict the school curriculum, limit teachers’ capacity to innovate and cater to individual student needs and are subject to manipulation, if not corruption. The higher the stakes, the bigger is the temptation.
This is not to say that tests are without benefit, to students, teachers and schools. As originally conceived in the 1990s, national testing was a diagnostic for teachers, giving them a clearer conception of the performance standard expected, allowing them to assess individual student progress against a common standard for the age cohort and to adapt their teaching to meet a student’s particular needs.
NAPLAN however does not work this way for individual students. The results are too late arriving back in the classroom and according to the NSW Director-General of Education, teachers have lost the ability to use the results for their original diagnostic purpose and lack the confidence and skills to analyse the data.
As critical professionals, teachers have an array of other assessment practices to cater for individual student needs, as long as the demands of NAPLAN allow them the scope and time. U.K. and U.S. experiences shows that over-reliance on basic skills testing means too much teaching time is wasted in test preparation and the scope of teaching is limited by the imperative to teach to the test. In some cases, teaching practice is distorted by the triage effect, where students are categorised as non-urgent, suitable for treatment or hopeless cases – teachers focus on students on the cusp of passing. Very low achievers and very high achievers miss out.
As a benchmark, the tests act more as an incentive for avoiding poor performance than for aiming high. They contain no incentive for strong performance and distract attention from the pursuit of high academic achievement. Current education policies hold no reward for education excellence, despite the rhetoric.
As long as basic skills testing dominate education policy, other important subjects, abilities, skills and talents are marginalised. So much time, energy and resources are devoted to mastery of basic skills in reading and mathematics that students are deprived of opportunities to fully develop the content knowledge and skills they need to succeed in work, further study and life in the 21st century. Neglecting the broad range of less tangible, less testable and less quantifiable skills is detrimental to a quality education system, students and society.
This over-emphasis on basic proficiency testing disadvantages all students, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds because their families are least able to provide them with wider educational experiences beyond the school gates.
Having high expectations of all students, setting ambitious standards, believing that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels and necessary that they do so, are the underpinnings of a quality education for all students. The rhetoric of excellence needs to be reflected in the substance of education policy.
Government policies that rely on assessing what is easy to measure and ignore other important dimensions of schooling are damaging.No one questions the importance of basic skills proficiency, but schools should be supported and held accountable for achieving quality in much broader terms. The objective of a quality education policy should be to provide a well-rounded education for all and achievement of the range of high-level skills needed in the modern economy and society. If the result of such a policy is more testing – a richer, more intelligent approach to testing in a wider range of areas, closely linked to the broad national curriculum is required. Only then will testing be worthwhile.
Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy at the Australian Catholic University and Executive Director of the new Public Policy Institute based in Canberra. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Scott's most recent publication co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote is, Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution?