Fiddling with NAPLAN while PISA burns

It is the bleakest of midwinter and your house feels cold. Despite apparently having the heating turned on, you check the thermometer and you see that it is just 10°C and the temperature even appears to be dropping over time. Do you:

A. Decide to check the thermometer less often?

B. Check the thermometer but then hide the temperature measurements from the rest of your family?

C. Declare that thermometers do not work because your house is getting colder?

D. Fix the heating?

The correct answer is D, but answers A through to C may appeal to the education ministers of a number of Australian states who have commissioned a report that makes similar suggestions about NAPLAN, Australia’s national literacy and numeracy assessment programme.

Currently, students sit NAPLAN assessments in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The review suggests reducing this to Years 3 and 7 or perhaps 4 and 8. It also floats the idea of making it harder for parents to find NAPLAN information about schools through the MySchool website. All of this appears to be under the assumption that NAPLAN doesn’t work because it has not fixed literacy and numeracy outcomes in Australia.

I am critical of NAPLAN in its current form. The numeracy tests have far too few questions for students to attempt without the use of a calculator, sending the signal that calculation by hand is no longer important. The reading and writing assessments select from random content rather than the content of a rigorous curriculum. Partly, this is because the Australian curriculum is not rigorous and is instead knowledge-lite and vague. However, even if the curriculum were to be reformed, I suspect the authors of NAPLAN would still select random contexts for reading and writing rather than context from the previous year’s curriculum content because they have a view of reading comprehension and writing composition as wholly generic skills. They are not. A large component of both is domain specific – you can read and write better about stuff you know about. The current arrangements therefore privilege the already privileged – the students who have family discussions about the news and family visits to museums.

I would also add a science test. I suspect that science content is not taught rigorously in Australian schools but it would be good to know and track this.

Instead, the review floats the prospect of assessing non-existent ‘general capabilities’ such as critical thinking through the writing assessment. You can certainly teach students to think critically within a subject discipline by essentially teaching that discipline to a high level, but the idea that critical thinking is somehow a general capability that can be applied equally well from one domain of knowledge to another is simply wrong. Attempting to assess it as a generic skill will therefore not help.

In the context of this week’s depressing PISA news, this review seems particularly incongruous. NAPLAN is not perfect, but I would rather have it than not and I believe parents have a right to the information it produces. If individual schools are spending months and months doing NAPLAN preparation or freaking their students out about the assessments then that is on them. Not only is it morally dubious, it won’t work. They should focus on building and delivering a rich and robust curriculum and then explicitly teaching it.

Education ministers should either focus on helping schools deliver these goals or get out of the way, give them more autonomy and let them figure it out for themselves.

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6 thoughts on “Fiddling with NAPLAN while PISA burns

  1. Unfortunately, it’s “E”… we seem to do all of the above!

    First, we decide to check the thermometer less often hoping the temperature picks up. Our partner asks us why is it still cold and we say we have it under control. So, we check the thermometer again but then hide the temperature measurements from the rest of your family. If they ask, you say it reads ok. You are then maligned by the family who delighted the job to sort out the thermostat so, you declare that the thermometer does not work because your house is getting colder. Only when someone gets pneumonia or frost bite do we then decide it is time to fix the heating!

  2. I agree with you, ‘critical thinking’, ‘problem solving’ and ‘creativity’ are merely bureaucratic or journalistic tropes, they have no parameters; indeed, how do we teach to any of them? However, the only discipline that might align with ‘critical thinking’ is philosophy, specifically logic. Law also might produce some generalisable capabiltiies (but these are usually exhibited by smart experienced people).
    So there we are. More rigor for the curriculum. However a knowledge-rich explicitly taught curriculum not crowded with fashionable obsessions du jour would be best.

    • Maybe the start of critical thinking in the real world is the investigators’ ABC: assume nothing, believe no one and check everything. There that should work. I can’t think of a ‘D’ to extend it but the ‘E’ could be ‘everyone has an angle’.

  3. Matthew says:

    no need to test every student to get a good understanding of how the system as a whole is performing, you can do that for vastly less expense with a decent sample – like the way PISA is conducted. NAPLAN has failed in a sense, it was justified by some that by placing the result on the myschool website compettitive pressures between schools combined with parental choice would result in improvements – by encouraging schools to lift their game. Seems that schools need more than NAPLAN to get better results

  4. Kylie Laws says:

    It is ‘E’. Stop obsessing over the thermometer and your heating system and realise some one has left all the windows open.

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