Tunnel vision ... Year 7 students at Daramalan College in Canberra sit the NAPLAN test. Photo: Gary Schafer
A recent Whitlam Institute study of high-stakes tests in schools showed that the federal government's annual literacy and numeracy tests placed undue pressure on children, causing stress and even illness. While these effects are concerning, the more important issue is how this narrow focus and overemphasis on basic skills testing is distorting Australia's education policies, undermining quality and, in particular, doing little to help disadvantaged students.
As the Commonwealth continues to negotiate with the states and territories over the Gonski funding model and a national school improvement plan, the results of the national assessment program - literacy and numeracy (better known as NAPLAN) are becoming more deeply embedded into 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 test results. In other words, achievements in literacy and numeracy now define school quality. The attainment of basic skills has become the main steering mechanism of schooling.
The overemphasis on basic proficiency testing disadvantages all students, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In following this path, Australia is out of step with the evidence of effective education policies. While Britain and the United States are stepping back from overemphasising narrow skills tests, Australia is charging ahead, taking their role to an extreme. We are committed to using the tests to make funding and accountability decisions that go well beyond the capacity of the tests to support, ignoring evidence that the tests may be unreliable, are partial, constrict the school curriculum, limit teachers' capacity to innovate and to cater to individual students' needs, and are subject to manipulation, if not corruption. The higher the stakes, the bigger the temptation.
This is not to say that tests are without benefits, to students, teachers and schools. As originally conceived in the 1990s, national testing was a diagnostic tool for teachers, giving them a clearer conception of the performance standards expected, allowing them to assess individual students' progress against a common standard for their age cohort and to adapt their teaching to meet a student's particular needs.
However, the tests do not work this way for individual students. The results are too late arriving back in the classroom and, according to the NSW Education Department's director-general, teachers have lost the ability to use the results for their original diagnostic purpose and lack the skills to analyse the data.
As critical professionals, teachers have an array of other assessment practices to cater for individual students' needs, as long as the demands of NAPLAN allow them the scope and time. British and American experiences shows that over-reliance on basic skills testing means too much teaching time is wasted on 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 who are 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 do not reward education excellence, despite the rhetoric.
As long as basic skills tests dominate education policy, other important subjects, abilities, skills and talents are marginalised. So much time, energy and resources are devoted to mastering 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 overemphasis 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. 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, ignoring 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 to achieve the range of high-level skills needed in the modern economy and society. The result of such a policy may be a richer, more intelligent approach to testing across a wider range of areas, closely linked to the broad national curriculum. Only then will testing be worthwhile.
Professor Scott Prasser is the executive director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University.