A breakaway review led by four states into Australia's NAPLAN school testing regime has suggested a moratorium on writing assessments until that part of the controversial test is improved.
Federal education minister Dan Tehan has already flagged a radical rethink of Australia's education agenda when state and territory ministers meet next week, in the wake of the nation recording its worst result so far in the global student assessment, PISA.
But the ACT, NSW, Victoria and Queensland will drag talks back to NAPLAN when they put their review's first interim report under his nose at the two-day summit in Alice Springs.
The report, provided to The Canberra Times on Thursday, stops short of making any concrete findings as the review's expert panel of education professors continue their work. But it does outline a number of possible reforms to standardised testing in Australia, including the more radical option of reducing NAPLAN from an all-in census test to a PISA-style sample.
Reviewers were less cautious about lashing NAPLAN's writing component, urging a halt to full-scale testing in the discipline until it's "limited" scope could be reviewed- including reports it encourages formulaic, even rehearsed answers.
Mr Tehan has backed NAPLAN as an essential measure of the country's school systems, and some experts have also urged caution in scrapping national performance data at the very moment education departments are grappling with slipping results.
But others, including the Australian Education Union, say "high stakes" NAPLAN exams have created a culture of pressure and competition in schools after more than a decade of testing - and could even be behind Australia's slide on the world stage as lesson plans are narrowed around the assessment.
Last year, the ACT spearheaded a national review into the publication of NAPLAN results on the MySchool website, which ministers are also due to debate next week. But in September, after the federal government rejected calls for a roots-and-branch review of the test itself, the territory joined the nation's three largest states in commissioning their own.
Mr Tehan has since called for the states to stand down until all jurisdictions transition to online NAPLAN testing in 2021, when he says it would be appropriate to take a deeper look.
Every May, students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 sit the test in literacy and numeracy, and so their learning progression is tracked over time.
The review's first report floats a rethink of which age-groups participate in NAPLAN as well as a broadening of the material covered. Moving it forward in the school year would also reduce the time wasted teaching to the test, reviewers note, as well as speed up delivery of the results to schools - "liberating" NAPLAN out of stock assessment and giving it a real role in guiding improvement.
While nationally NAPLAN results are flat-lining, they are also not showing the same "alarming" decline reflected in PISA scores - where Australia has recorded one of the sharpest falls in reading, maths and science in 18 years of testing.
ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry said the main concerns she heard about NAPLAN revolved around stress and how the stigma of low scores could impact enrolments, deepening the divide between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.
The report said there appeared to be more concern about the publication of results than the tests themselves. But for students, the formal stakes of NAPLAN remain low - results do not shape their education beyond perhaps extra support when issues emerge or, in some cases, entry into selective schools.
Still, reviewers noted comparisons between schools could be unfair, reduced down to just a narrow range of literacy and numeracy criteria even when adjusted along socioeconomic lines. While NAPLAN offers a chance to measure students under the same conditions, the report said its ability to assess students at the highest and lowest levels appeared limited. Such a problem had been highlighted in earlier experimental work by the agency which runs NAPLAN, ACARA, the report said.
The total cost of the review is estimated at about $1 million and the final report, billed as "a strategic blueprint for standardised testing in Australia", will be released in June.
The future of ACARA itself is also on the agenda this month, amid reports in the Nine papers of a proposal to merge it with the federal authority that oversees teaching standards. The new "streamlined" agency would have less autonomy, as more control - and accountability - was shifted to ministers.
Ms Berry said the nation's educational governance architecture had been tinkered with over the years but not reformed wholesale and so a rethink was timely.
"It is appropriate that ministers maintain clear line of sight on policy directions and initiatives as is currently the case," she said.
She echoed arguments in the interim report that the best assessments to guide learning in schools still came from teachers on the ground.