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.