It is being widely reported that Les Perelman, a retired academic from the U.S., has analysed the Australian NAPLAN writing assessment and found it wanting. NAPLAN stands for ‘National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy’ and it consists of a suite of tests taken by Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Parents can access school-level results via the MySchool website, raising the stakes for schools, if not the children themselves.
I quite like the numeracy assessment, although I was strongly opposed to the recent move to reduce the size of the non-calculator section in Years 7 and 9. The ‘Language Conventions’ paper that assesses components such as grammar and spelling seems reasonable to me, but the greatest flaw in the system is the two papers in reading and writing. Both of these papers assume that reading and writing are entirely generic skills and assess them accordingly.
This becomes clear when you consider Perelman’s criticism of the writing paper. According to writing style guides, “…one should use the simplest, most precise language wherever possible,” and yet the NAPLAN writing paper awards credit for using big words. I understand what Perelman is saying. I’ve had enough of my writing edited for clarity to know that this usually involves simplification, but that only applies if we are trying to communicate with the greatest clarity possible. Often, I am writing about pretty complex and abstract ideas and so a focus on clarity is key. Much professional writing looks like this, hence the style guides.
But what of art? Isn’t writing sometimes about building up tension or communicating beauty? In such writing, merciless economy is less of a goal. We no longer look upon a ‘stream’ but a ‘silver serpent, slithering across the sun-gilded valley floor.’ If you wrote office emails like that then people would think you were odd, but it’s great for children’s stories.
So what is it? What type of writing is NAPLAN trying to assess? Well, students could be asked to write a narrative based around some kind of prompt such as ‘The Box’ or they could be asked to write persuasively about some mind-numbingly banal topic such as ‘Books or TV’. Informational writing is not assessed at all, presumably because we cannot assume students know anything. How is the issue of writing style resolved? Well, according to Perelman, NAPLAN rewards students for using challenging words – whether they are the best words to use in a given context or not – it rewards them for using lots of adjectives to modify nouns and it rewards them for using connectives such as, ‘moreover’ and ‘on the other hand.’
These may once have served as useful proxies for expert performance, but now we all know what they are, they won’t any longer. This is a classic example of how rubrics fail.
The solution to this mess is twofold. Firstly, narrative writing should be assessed separately. Secondly, persuasive and informative writing should be set in topics selected from the previous twelve months of the Australian Curriculum. Although the Australian Curriculum is weak and content-lite, this would have at least two advantages. Firstly, it would provide an incentive to actually teach and assess the knowledge component of the curriculum, such as it is. Secondly, it would level the playing field. Children from privileged backgrounds would no longer be at a distinct advantage because their parents happened to buy them a book on / have a discussion about / visit a museum related to content relevant to the writing prompt.
Similarly, the reading assessment should also be based in the Australian Curriculum, similar to a proposal that is currently on the table in Louisiana.
Neither reading or writing are wholly generic sets of skills and we neglect this fact at our peril because it leads to invalid assessments.