Why are Australia’s NAPLAN results so resistant to change?

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It has been ten years since the advent of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a series of standardised tests taken across Australia. Today, we learn that, over this time, there have been only small improvements in students’ performance. For reading, it seems that much of the gain took place in the first few years of the program, consistent with students and teachers becoming familiar with the tests and reaping the once-only boost of practising reading comprehension strategies. For writing, the situation is grim, with a 2% decline since the format of the assessment was changed in 2011.

I have some concerns about the form of NAPLAN assessments. For instance, the reading and writing components should be set in the context of Australian Curriculum content that has been studied in the previous two years, and the numeracy assessment should abandon it’s constructivist focus on wordy problems which acts to conflate mathematical and reading ability. Nonetheless, any genuine improvements in literacy and numeracy should show up in these results and so we have largely been treading water.

The blame for this situation lies squarely with a widespread adherence to bad ideas. An interesting report by the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) recently evaluated the impact of a targeted intervention where $261 million was spent in Kindergarten to Year 2 in an attempt to improve outcomes. Some things certainly changed as a result. Assessments against a set of continua levels improved and many schools felt positive about the reforms. According to a survey of principals, the number of teachers utilising differentiated teaching and learning strategies to ‘some extent’ or a ‘great extent’ increased from 62% to 99% from 2013 to 2016. Hands-on learning went from 59% to 95% and teaching explicitly went from 70% to 99%.

Unfortunately, the Year 3 NAPLAN results showed no significant change.

Readers of this blog will note that differentiation and hands-on learning lack evidence for effectiveness (despite the Victorian government’s odd claims about differentiation that I will return to in a later post) and so we might expect an expansion of these practices to have little effect. However, we should expect a greater use of explicit teaching to be significant, give the evidence for whole-class explicit approaches.

Setting aside in-house programmes, the top three interventions used by schools in New South Wales were TEN, a numeracy intervention, and the L3/L2 and Reading Recovery literacy interventions. I don’t know much about TEN but it seems to involve short periods of explicit teaching to small groups of students. L3 is a programme that also involves teachers interacting with a small section of the class at a time and Reading Recovery is a one-to-one constructivist tutoring approach that was recently evaluated as having little impact by CESE. I was interested to find Reading Recovery in the mix because a number of NSW teachers on social media have told me that it is no longer used.

I think these interventions illustrate a morbid attachment to specific ideas about differentiation. Sure, it would be great if we could explicitly instruct all students individually or in small groups because we could then more closely match instruction to their needs. But without vastly increasing the number of teachers, the question arises as to what all of the other students are meant to be doing while the teacher teaches just a few of them. We’ve known since at least the 1970s that the answer to this question is, ‘not much of any value’. This is why whole-class approaches have proved effective and seem to represent the best trade-off between targeting and teacher input. Whole-class approaches have certainly not impaired the performance of the countries that regularly top the international PISA and TIMSS assessments.

But whole-class teaching is unconscionable in many early primary classrooms. Writing in 1987 about the early 1970s approach to primary teaching in England that was influence by the progressive Plowden report, Maurice Galton comments on the ‘fashionable rhetoric’ of the time where teachers would proclaim, “I don’t teach a class, I teach children”. This rhetoric is just as fashionable now in Australia.

In terms of writing, the ideological change that would be required in order to turn the situation around seems profound. Australia often takes its cue from the U.S. Yesterday, I wrote about the Hochman Method, an approach to writing that is also known as, “The Writing Revolution” and @BradshawEnglish on Twitter pointed me to a paper describing it’s adoption in a New York high school. It is worth quoting a section from this paper because it succinctly captures the problem in many Australian schools:

“Although research-based understanding of how writing is taught is severely limited, especially in middle and high schools (Applebee & Langer, 2009), the recommendations put forth in Writing Next (Graham & Perin, 2007) reflect known trends and tensions in writing instruction (Gilbert & Graham, 2010), specifically the shift in recent decades from a more traditional, teacher-centered model to the ‘caught, not taught’ approach thought to dominate elementary and middle school writing instruction (Graham as cited in Tyre, 2012) and to influence high school writing instruction as well. In this approach, students are immersed in rich literacy environments and expected to ‘catch’ most of what is needed to become effective writers. Most students, according to Graham, do not catch what they need – and those coming from poverty, with learning disabilities and/or limited English proficiency, and/or those with weak instruction may not catch much at all (as quoted in Tyre, 2012).”

Instead of whole-class, explicit instruction in the specifics of writing – e.g. how to use ‘because’ to connect clauses – we prefer a model where students figure this out largely for themselves with the aid of written ‘feedback’ from the teacher; a time-consuming and an inefficient use of time.

Banal NAPLAN writing prompts are also part of the problem because they encourage schools to overly rehearse by asking students to write to similar prompts, perhaps with a few hints and tips about story arcs or complex sentences, rather than focusing on building the vocabulary and world knowledge that all good writers possess.

I am not sure of the way forward here. When proponents of evidence-based education point to scientific evidence they are likely to be told that science simply does not apply to something like education because education is about people. It is as if the dominant ideology exists within a perfectly impervious sphere designed to deflect criticism and maintain orthodoxy. That is why individual teachers and parents need to start asking a few more questions. That is why it requires a grassroots movement. We will never see change emanating from the bureaucrats and academics who have bound their reputations to bad ideas.


12 thoughts on “Why are Australia’s NAPLAN results so resistant to change?

  1. You make a lot of sense Greg – another factor that people don’t want to recognise, based on the bell curve, is that eventually you hit a brick wall in terms of raising standards for every child. Ability, motivation and intelligence are not uniformly distributed. As you mentioned, and as acknowledged by the late Ken Rowe, in Australian classrooms constructivism rules and better performing overseas education systems have more explicit teaching, a focused curriculum and more traditional classroom environments.

  2. Greg, I work as a consultant in the area of teaching reading and writing to early years students. Just last week my colleague and I had a meeting with the heads of early years curriculum at the Catholic Education office. We were keen to connect with them we because we have begun working with a few Catholic schools who are incorporating, with unprecedented success, an explicit sequential phonics approach into their Foundation year literacy program. We were hoping to show them these results and alert them to the incontrovertible evidence that explicit teaching of phonics skills leads to vastly improved reading and writing performance. But it was not to be. They refused to be moved. The idea that instruction is pitched to the whole class was an anathema to them. They refused to budge from their position that phonics should only be taught ‘in context’ . They were horrified when we alerted them to the conclusions of neuroscientists-that when we read, we first decode the words, that our brains are all much the same when it comes to reading and therefore learning to decode is the first necessary step in becoming literate. They saw this as ‘neoliberalism!” So yes, a top-down approach appears to be useless. A grassroots approach is clearly the way to go.

    1. The same people you mention, if they or one of their family became ill, would expect best practice medical treatment based on scientific trials of drugs etc. But they don’t expect that children should be taught to read by the best practice reading instructions as determined by decades of scientific research. Of course we know medicine is not perfect but it seems to be half a century ahead of education in adopting rational scientific approaches to determining ‘treatments.”

      1. I completely agree with you. If people died as a result of poor reading instruction then there would be compensation paid and enquiries set up. But children who fail to read, slip into oblivion as far as the education authorities are concerned in U.K.

  3. I can’t help but notice the pencil grip of the child in the photo! Just about every picture I see of kids at school these days is the same, they can’t hold a pencil/pen. The same is true of my own children.

  4. Pencil grip aside, I’m ready for grass roots action. Would petitioning the government for some knowledge-led schools where content is taught by the teacher be a good place to start?

    1. Can you found a charter school in Australia? Here in NZ it does not seem to hard to do, but it is an opportunity to gather like minded individuals and create a knowledge based school.

      1. That would be wonderful but I’m not sure it’s easy in Aust. Does anyone know or have any interest in doing something along these lines?

      2. The government won’t fund such a charter school in NZ.

        The Ministry know that the most popular schools are those that teach traditionally, and most of them are single sex. Nevertheless they continue to only build co-ed schools based on “modern” teaching. Such schools have failed, and will continue to fail, but the Ministry is not interested in the evidence.

        You will find every single Charter school will be progressive, more or less.

  5. Phonics teaching yes – but PLEASE let’s make sure what we teach is sustainable and linguistically correct. It is not sustainable to teach children that a letter is a sound – it is not. The science of linguistics and phonetics very clearly state this. If what a child is taught in their first year of school is that the letter A says /ae/ as in cat, then the teacher in the next year has to un-teach that so that the child can read and write words such as lady, small, after and great for example – that is not sustainable phonics teaching. We need to teach our children, whole class, explicitly, the 26 letters – capital and lower case, the 44 phonemes and the most common spelling choices for those phonemes – then we can really teach decoding, spelling and reading.

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