How to improve our national tests

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When Robert Randall rose to speak at the recent Evidence for Learning Evidence Exchange, he made a plea. The best preparation for NAPLAN – Australia’s programme of national literacy and numeracy tests – is to teach the national curriculum.

Randall is CEO of ACARA, the body responsible for both the Australian Curriculum and the NAPLAN tests. He wanted to know how test data can be more useful to schools. But in order to achieve this aim with reading and writing, Randall needs to tweak the tests themselves and join-up the two bits of his job a little more. I’ll explain why.

There is good reason at present to abandon teaching the curriculum in favour of test preparation, particularly if you are coming from a low base. There are a number of hacks that you can teach children to improve their NAPLAN writing responses such as how to structure an argument or narrative, how to use complex sentences and so on. And you can practice these by responding to past NAPLAN prompts.

Similarly, you can teach children reading comprehension ‘skills’ and, indeed, this is what ACARA think they are testing. However, I am convinced by Dan Willingham when he characterises these as ‘tricks’. They work but the pay-off is pretty immediate and further practice is redundant.

Instead, when you present children with a random selection of texts you are mainly measuring their general knowledge. This makes these tests vicious and unfair to students from low socio-economic backgrounds who tend to have less general knowledge than their wealthier peers.

The problem is that the myth that it’s all about reading comprehension skills has really taken hold. Children have lessons where they select random books from bins that are supposedly at their reading level and then use these books to redundantly practice these skills. This misses an opportunity to teach them some of the knowledge that they lack. A good alternative might see everyone reading and discussing the same book as a whole class.

Or perhaps children could also be read to. We know that children’s oral comprehension exceeds their reading comprehension for much of primary school so by restricting knowledge growth only to what they can read we are missing a trick.

But if a teacher did this and systematically set about growing general knowledge in this way then there would be little reward in NAPLAN. The children might know lots about The Romans but this won’t help them with a randomly selected text about horses.

The solution is obvious: set reading and writing NAPLAN prompts within contexts covered by the national curriculum for the previous year. Teachers then have agency. The tests will be fair and actually relate quite well to the teaching.

Unfortunately, the Australian Curriculum is pretty thin gruel full of wiffle-waffle. Recent revisions have seen it adopt the unscientific ‘expanding horizons’ model of social studies which had been largely debunked by 1980. And anyone who thinks I am responsible for setting-up a false dichotomy between knowledge and skills should look at the science curriculum. The whole of biology, chemistry, physics and geology is reduced to just one of three strands, the others being ‘science as a human endeavour’ and ‘science inquiry skills’ where students have to learn nebulous things like ‘questioning and predicting’.

There is some limited scope if you ignore the fluff and focus on the actual content. For instance, the Year 2 science curriculum states that children, “explore the use of resources from Earth and are introduced to the idea of the flow of matter when considering how water is used.” Still, it’s pretty hard going to find much that is specific. The Humanities and Social Studies curriculum is particularly bad. What should be a rich introduction to the world is impoverished and vague.

The sad thing about this is that the humanities curriculum was deliberately dumbed-down in this way following a review because principals complained about the amount of content crowding out time for literacy and numeracy.

What do they want that extra literacy time for? Redundant reading comprehension skill-drills and practice at writing narratives and persuasive texts: Joyless, soulless test preparation.

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4 Comments on “How to improve our national tests”

  1. Queen's English says:

    Your point about reading is only too true. In NSW, students have to analyse a range of unseen texts as part of their final English exams – and English is compulsory. A young colleague recently told me that she gave an unseen text to Year 12; the text was quite clearly about the making of the nuclear bomb, but her students couldn’t understand it on that literal level, which naturally limited their ability to analyse it. She was flummoxed and frustrated by this lack of understanding by a top set English class.

    I told her what I have only recently realised myself (thanks E.D. Hirsch): that if students don’t have *some* broad, general knowledge of the topic, then that will affect their ability to understand the text, regardless of their general ‘reading ability’. I think that was the first time she’d heard that perspective and I don’t think she was ready to take it on (yet) … but then, it’s a rather startling idea in the current climate.

  2. I attended many meetings with Rob Randall and ACARA when the English curriculum was being developed. When I questioned the curriculum statement – teach some sounds – by asking ‘which sounds’ they responded … there are too many to list. The person heading this project did not have a clue. Totally disappointing. It is so vague and lacks any structure or guidance for teachers. So pleased when they included ‘decodable texts’ but this has been removed by Victoria and NSW.
    My other question was about a national handwriting style … the answer was ‘we didn’t have a lobby group’.

  3. Mike says:

    I remember, about four years ago, asking the Maths HT at our school what the new National Curriculum was like for maths. Now he is one of the most polite, gentle fellows you’re ever likely to meet, and I’d never heard a swearword pass his lips in the several years I’d known him, but his answer was simply “It’s s**t”. And the reasons he gave were exactly the ones you mention for the science curriculum.

    From what those who were involved told me, it was mainly because there were so many interest groups to please, and (crucially) the states to keep in mind; apparently the curricula in WA and Tasmania were, shall we say, not as challenging as in NSW and Victoria. That or the focus was different in these areas. The inevitable result was vagueness and a dearth of content.


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