If it is a truism that Australians love sport, it is equally true that Australians love to celebrate success. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those controlling our education system. The Australian Education Union (AEU) argues against assessment that is competitive, used to rank students, based on set year-level standards of achievement or that might be used to monitor school and teacher effectiveness. The Australian Association for the Teachers of English (AATE) is also a very strong critic of more formal forms of assessment. In the jargon much loved by educationalists, the AATE argues that assessment should be "criterion referenced, work required and descriptive".
While most parents, employers and students like to have a clear idea of standards and where students are placed according to ability, the AATE believes otherwise. Not only does the English teacher body consistently argue against ranking students, but the AATE also argues against state-wide or national literacy testing. The Australian Council of Deans of Education also argues against tests and examinations on the basis that it is wrong to make students learn correct answers and to put students in a situation where they have to compete, one against the other.
Since the 1970s, across Australia’s education systems, competitive examinations and graded assessment gradually have disappeared. Unlike successful overseas countries, where students regularly face high-stakes assessment, Australian students generally face their first competitive examination in the final year of schooling. In many classrooms students no longer fail as it is considered bad for their self-esteem. Progressive teachers also argue that it is wrong to rank students in terms of ability as this reinforces the point that some students are better than others. As a result, parents are told that competitive, graded assessment is "inequitable and unjust" and that the best forms of assessment are those that are "descriptive, diagnostic and participatory".
One reason why competitive assessment is viewed as unacceptable is that progressive and left-wing teachers argue that it is socially unjust. The fact that students from wealthy non-government schools achieve such strong year 12 results is often used as an argument by left-wing academics to abolish external examinations and to create a situation where all students are successful. Ignored is the research suggesting that the most important influence on success at year 12 is the quality and rigour of what happens in the classroom; especially during the middle years of schooling.
Those opposed to more formal assessment also argue that so-called collaborative learning is considered better than pitting student against student. As argued by the Australian Education Union: reliance on competition is a primary cause of inequalities of educational outcome because students from certain social groups are advantaged by competitive selection methods. Competitive selection also sets students against each other rather than encouraging co-operative learning methods.
Forgotten is that one of the benefits of a competitive, academic curriculum, when it is allowed to operate, is that it provides a social ladder by which those who are less fortunate can achieve a higher standard of living and a fruitful career. Witness the children of Indo-Chinese migrants who consistently achieve year 12 success and the performance of selective state schools in NSW.
According to those teachers committed to progressive education fads, the ideal classroom is one where teachers, instead of grading work numerically (7 out of 10) or on the basis that there are clearly defined standards that represent pass and fail (D is a pass, E is not), celebrate the unique learning qualities of each child. Thus, instead of regular pen and paper testing, students are encouraged to do project work or folio work and grades give way to vague and generalised descriptive comments such as "attained", "shows evidence" or "not always achieved".
It is also the case, in line with Australia’s adoption of outcomes-based education, that students are automatically promoted from year to year without any realistic attempt to evaluate whether they have mastered the required standard of work.
Evidence that this progressive approach to assessment is widespread in Australia’s schools is found in a Commonwealth funded report entitled Reporting on School and Student Achievement. The report involved a sample of some 500 parents across a range of Australian schools and concluded:
Parents consider there is a tendency, more common in primary schools, to avoid facing or telling hard truths…
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.
It should be noted that unlike Australian students, who face their first competitive, high stakes examination at the end of secondary school, students in countries that perform best in international tests such as TIMSS and TIMSS-R are regularly tested throughout their school years.
In Singapore, for example, students are tested at grades 4 and 6 in primary school and a number of times during their secondary years. Unlike Australian schools, such tests are used to stream students into ability levels and, at the end of primary school, to decide whether students will enter the normal, special or express courses at the secondary level. The Netherlands also expects students to undertake a standardised test at the end of primary school and this is used to decide what type of secondary education they will undertake (the choice is between junior vocational, junior general, senior general or pre-university).