Will measuring critical thinking improve NAPLAN?

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The ABC have got their hands on a report about the future of NAPLAN, the Australian government’s series of standardised assessments in literacy and numeracy that are taken by students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The report shows little progress in these areas since the introduction of NAPLAN and it makes suggestions for the future which include introducing tests of critical thinking and problem-solving.

I do not think NAPLAN is perfect. I am unhappy about how the numeracy assessment has been impoverished and made noisier by reducing the number of non-calculator questions. I also think the literacy assessments should be linked to content areas of the Australian curriculum that have been taught in the past 12 months, both to level the playing field and take away the advantage that students from culturally rich home backgrounds possess when general knowledge become a factor and to ensure schools focus on knowledge building rather than NAPLAN drilling.

However, with the caveat that I haven’t viewed the report, I cannot agree with some of the inferences it appears to draw.

Don’t blame the thermometer if your house is too cold

A system for measuring literacy and numeracy is not a program for improving it. Yes, I understand that many had hoped that by laying bare the situation, schools and education departments would be motivated to fix it. But this does not account for the influence of bad ideas in the education system. Unfortunately, NAPLAN may have motivated schools to go even harder at things that don’t work. I would still rather have NAPLAN in place, telling us that we are not making progress, than have our heads in the sand, ignoring the problem.

Tests of critical thinking and problem-solving won’t add any new information

Critical thinking and problem-solving are not generic skills. Instead, they rely heavily on possessing knowledge relevant to the problem to be solved or the topic to be critically thought about. When international assessments have sought to measure these qualities, they have not produced a reversal in the fortunes of nations. Instead, they have largely replicated the results from tests of numeracy, literacy and science.

It might be comforting to think that although we are not raising the literacy and numeracy levels of students, we may be enhancing their critical thinking skills, but this is probably just wishful thinking. Perhaps we do need these additional assessments if only to dispel this myth. But if so, can we satisfy ourselves with a sample rather than forcing all Australian kids through these redundant tests?

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4 thoughts on “Will measuring critical thinking improve NAPLAN?

  1. Disagree with you about the thermometer analogy, but heartily agree about the chimeras of critical thinking (a.k.a. “thinking the way educators would like you to think about various issues”), and problem-solving (a.k.a. non-transferable and non-hierarchical skills).

    1. Intrigued why you disagree with the thermometer analogy? Is this because of what it causes? Because I thought Greg addressed that.

  2. The worry about ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’ being touted is that they are a political talisman that the press is sure to cheer along, and parents might support because they tend to be led by the nose by the press. As others’ have commented and you have written in many places, not so, of course.

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