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Report card fails postmodern student assessments

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Friday, 23 September 2005


Australians love competitive sport and the idea of winners and losers. Australian parents also want to know how well their children are travelling against others at school and whether they have passed or failed.

Unfortunately, this is the very thing parents are denied. As noted by a federal report evaluating school reports and student assessment, entitled Reporting on School and Student Achievement:

Parents understand how difficult it may be for teachers to convey bad news, but nevertheless they indicate that they want a fair and honest assessment, in plain language, on the progress of their children.

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There is a lack of objective standards that parents can use to determine their children's attainment and rate of progress. Many parents specifically asked for information that would enable them to compare their children's progress with other students or with state, territory-wide or national standards.

Since the early 1990s, as a result of state and territory education systems adopting fads, such as outcomes-based education, traditional forms of assessment have been replaced by what is called 'formative assessment'.

Teachers committed to formative assessment are against ranking students and using letter grades or percentages. It's assumed that failing is bad for self-esteem, that all students, given enough resources and time, will succeed and, as learning is personal, students cannot be compared.

Formative assessment also embraces a developmental approach to learning, based on the argument that "students develop and learn at different rates and in different ways" and "the rate of individual development and learning can vary enormously and students may achieve a particular standard at different age levels".

The result? Instead of pass or fail, student progress or lack of progress is clouded by such politically correct terms as beginning, established, consolidating or emerging, solid, comprehensive.

Instead of students facing regular examinations with consequences for failure, as do those students in stronger performing education systems overseas, students are automatically promoted from year to year, even though many have not mastered the basics.

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While parents want an end to politically correct reports, the same cannot be said for those seeking to control our education system. The Australian Education Union, in addition to opposing statewide literacy and numeracy tests, is totally opposed to competitive, graded assessment, where students are ranked against one another or against set, year-level standards.

Not only does the AEU argue that competitive assessment is socially unjust, as some groups in society tend to be better than others, the union also argues that collaboration is better than competition as everyone should be able to experience success.

Such is the influence of the postmodern on education that the Australian Council of Deans of Education, in New Learning: A Charter for Australian Education, also argues against testing students on the basis that some will pass and some will fail.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at kevind@netspace.net.au. He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at www.edstandards.com.au

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