Anti ed reformers make the case for PISA

In this article from the tireless Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, Pasi Sahlberg and Andy Hargreaves respond to the open letter signed by dozens of researchers and academics from around the world to Andreas Schleicher, director of the Program of International Student Assessment, urging him to suspend administration of PISA until a new exam can be created.

The Sahlberg and Hargreaves arguments rests on the following:

1. Ignorance is not great and could have given corporate ed reformers an even easier ride

Just think for a moment what would global education look like if PISA had never been launched? There would be, as there was in the 1990s, a number of countries that mistakenly believed their education systems are the best in the world and should set the direction for other nations. Were it not for the fact that these weaker performing countries that include the United States and England have not been successful in PISA, the worldwide pressures for more market competition between schools, less university-based training for teachers, and more standardization of the curriculum, would have had a far easier ride.

The poor performance of Sweden after the implementation of their radical market choice program of for profit free schools would never have been outed.  Likewise the high performance of public education focussed Finland and to a lesser extent Canada would not have provided a very strong counter narrative.

2. PISA has enabled the OECD to shine a bright light on equity and to argue that equity and quality are not at odds:

It has put equity high up on the reform agenda. Without the data that PISA has generated over the years, calls for enhanced equity would not be part of the education policy conversation in the countries that have suffered from inequitable education systems, including the U.S. [and Australia].

However the authors do not let PISA off the hook on the many other issues raised by the group of academics and researchers.  In particular they raise serious concerns about the recent steps to put the tests into the hands of global corporate ed reformers, Pearson.

The conclude that the a) evidence provided by PISA is overwhelming and clear on the negatives of neoliberal education policies and b) that the negatives of PISA can be addressed by dealing with its problems not “knocking the PISA tower over”:

What PISA shows to the United States is that its current course of education policies that rely on competition, standardization, testing and privatization of public education is a wrong way. Our goal should not be to take PISA down, but to get it or something like it upright again, so that by using a range of criteria, and by using them in a fair and transparent way, we can identify and learn from the true high performers who are strong on equity as well as excellence, and on human development as well as tested achievement.

What do readers think?

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School Funding is indeed wasted Kevin, but not in ways that you are suggesting

sub title: More Dog Whistling from Kevin Donnelly:

Given that Christopher Pyne, anointed Kevin Donnelly as the one who could have his way with the Australian National Curriculum you think he might just sit back a little. But no – here he is again, but this time back to his old ways of vindictively threatening funding for Australia’s most needy students. But perhaps, after the Barry Spurr fiasco, Christopher Pyne has called on him to create a distraction.

So let’s look at his arguments and let’s apply Kevin’s own standards of Judaea-Christian tradition of solid, impartial, non-emotive, non-misleading, rational discourse.

His first claim runs as follows:

A prevailing myth of Australia’s left-leaning education establishment is that increased funding of government schools leads to improved educational outcomes.

But if you take out the misleading elements of this sentence, it might read more like this:

The prevailing position of Australia’s education establishment is that increased funding for high need schools will lead to improved educational outcomes.

Saying it this way reads a little differently doesn’t it? Here is the rationale for my edits:

  1. The Gonski report does not argue for more funding for Government schools – their status as Government schools is not the reason for additional funding. The Gonski report argues that Australia needs a resource standard that would be the amount of funds it takes to education an average child in Australia. On top of that we need to provide additional funds to be directed on the basis of needs – you might have noticed, Kevin, that it is called ‘needs based funding’ not Government school funding.
  1. Left leaning is nothing but a dog whistle. I am left leaning and Jane Caro might confess to this heinous crime too, but not David Gonski, nor Liberal Minister Adrian Piccoli. Rather, there is a consensus that needs based funding is the right way go.
  1. Thirdly, The use of the term ‘a … myth’ is quite emotive and misleading. It is not a myth just because Kevin says it is. In fact, the overwhelming weight of impartial, informed experts and researchers supports this view. Kevin knows better than to use red rag language like this. A more appropriate word would be ‘position’.

His next argument is that the OECD’s PISA tests show that increasing expenditure is not the solution. He is referring here to tables comparing global schooling expenditure to comparative PISA results. This argument actually has zero relevance to the Gonski claims because it has nothing whatsoever to do with needs based funding. It does not give any consideration to where the funding is directed.

Statistics on the global resourcing of schools tells us absolutely nothing about where the money goes. For example, the vast bulk of increases in schooling expenditure in Australia, since the mid 90s, has been spent on non-needy schools. Australia lags behind – way behind, other OECD countries on expenditure on public schools, where most of the needy students go, but is way out at the front of the pack on expenditure to private schools. In fact, no other country has directed such a huge amount of new funding on this sort of reverse targeting – on students who need it least.

This is a good example of Kevin’s sleight of hand approach to mounting an argument. He has cherry picked: this one, of many observations from the OECD reports, The OECD reports offer many other conclusions that were not referenced by Kevin. Those of most relevance to this debate include:

  • How resources are allocated is just as important as the amount of resources available to be allocated. P41
  • Much of the impact of socio-economic status on performance is mediated by the resources invested in schools. P43
  • How resources are allocated to disadvantaged and advantaged schools is also related to systems’ levels of performance. In higher performing systems, principals in socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools reported similar levels of quality of physical infrastructure and schools’ educational resources, both across OECD countries and across all countries and economies participated in PISA 2012 (Table IV.1.3). As shown in Figure IV.1.11, even after accounting for per capita GDP, 30% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by the level of similarities in principals’ report on schools’ educational resources between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools. P43

Of particular note is Figure IV.1.11 which illustrates that, on this indicator of equity, Australia is at the bottom of the pack – equal to the United States, with only Turkey and Mexico less equitable than us

  • Across OECD countries and all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools is not related to a system’s overall performance.

Kevin does not refer to any of these conclusions, preferring to use the one OECD conclusion that is ostensibly making his case. Here is the gist of his argument:

The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education

But what he should have said, drawing on all the relevant information might look more like this

 The OECD’s PISA in Focus 2013.. [concludes that] the countries that are the strongest performers in PISA are not the wealthiest, nor do they allocate more money to education, but they also don’t invest heavily in private school systems and they do invest more resources in low Socio-economic schools and ensure that the school facilities and standards of physical resourcing across schools are similar.

Kevin supports his poorly argued claim by drawing on a report prepared by Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh MP that appears to support him.

In Long Run Trends in School Productivity: Evidence from Australia, Leigh and Chris Ryan, analysing test results from 1964 to 2003, observed minimal improvement and concluded: “Real per child school expenditure increased substantially over this period, implying a fall in school productivity.”

But, of course, there are no comparable tests between 1964 and 2003, and Leigh and Ryan did not investigate where the expenditure increases occurred. If they had, they would have discovered that the bulk of the increases, above and beyond CPI, can be attributed to the combined result of the Whitlam decision to fund private schools in the 1970s and the huge boosts these schools enjoyed over the Howard years.

Kevin’s third argument is that the catholic system achieves superior results to the Government system.

To be honest, I don’t quite understand why this is an argument for not increasing funding to public schools. Surely if this was true it would support Gonski’s recommendations.

But is it true? Kevin does not substantiate or reference this claim.

Kevin also neglects to add that according to the OECD report 2013 cited above, (Figure ii-i-19) the results for Australia on the different performance on PISA (Mathematics) of school systems, after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools favours public education by a small margin.

And finally, Kevin’s last argument is about class size.

Perhaps this is relevant because Kevin assumes that the additional funds that would flow to high needs schools would all go towards reducing class sizes. This is an assumption as there are many other demands on cash strapped high needs schools – remedial support, counseling, diagnostic assessments, ICT, investing in teacher professional development, teacher remuneration …

Kevin ignores research that demonstrates that there is a positive relationship between smaller class sizes and student outcomes for low SES students and this is where the bulk of the additional funds will be directed.

He has also neglected to note that, since Government funding for private schools commenced in the 1970s, private schools (non-Catholic) have led the way in reduced class size even though this is where we get almost no gain from our investment. On the other hand Catholic School class sizes have absolutely plummeted and are now on par with Government schools.

Perhaps these two systems could be persuaded by Kevin to give back to the Government the additional funds they received that have been directed to reduced class sizes. After-all Kevin is adamant that money does not matter and should not be wasted and this is the key area where increased funds have not translated into improved outcomes.

Assessment:

This essay has a number of fundamental weaknesses: un-necessary emotive language designed to unduly influence readers, failure to substantiate core claims, cherry picking of evidence to suit a pre ordained conclusion and lack of engagement with the core conclusions of the OECD research. F-

What would your school do with Gonski money?

Throwing more money at schools isn’t the answer yells Dr Scott Prasser. This is the man who has defended every red cent that the Government has allocated to Catholic schools – even the 50% of them who were overfunded after the SES model was introduced and their funding level was grandfathered.

The Gonski Review Panel did not address the issue of how the additional funds so sorely needed by public and needy schools in Australia because this was outside their terms of reference.

But it is an important question. Glen Fowler in an article in the Canberra Times, How Money Makes a Difference tells the story of Richardson Primary school – one of a very small number of ACT disadvantaged schools and how they managed their Low SES National Partnership funds to improve learning outcomes for their children. He is what they did

Richardson Primary started by enhancing its capacity to gather and analyse data about how their students were performing. They purchased licences from the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) to administer annual internal tests in literacy and numeracy at all year levels. That way, they didn’t have to wait for NAPLAN results. They had up-to-date information about where students were falling behind and needed extra support.

Drawing on hard data that indicated students were struggling with vocabulary development and reading comprehension, the school set about enhancing teacher capacity to address these issues. Every staff member attended a five-day intensive course in Dr Spencer Kagan’s high-impact collaborative learning strategy. Kagan’s approach aims to engage every student, especially those who are struggling, by structuring activities so that students feel individual and collective responsibility for their learning.

Additionally, every teacher attended a two-day seminar with educational expert, Dr Dylan Wiliam, on using his formative assessment strategies to enrich each student’s learning journey.

The school also purchased teacher and classroom resources to complement structured and supported teacher-learning teams that ensure effective school-wide implementation of these key strategies. This razor-sharp focus on improving instructional practice through collaboration and reflection has led to more confident and skilful educators, adept at engaging every learner every moment of the learning process.

The school’s final strategy was to build community partnerships. Working with the YWCA of Canberra, the school established an Intel Computer Clubhouse for 10-18-year-olds in the area. The Clubhouse is an out-of-school-hours high-tech digital studio where young people can work with industry-standard hardware and software and collaborate with mentors on passion projects.

 

This is an interesting set of initiatives for a number of reasons

Firstly, This school understands that particularly in relation to students who are not achieving agreed benchmarks in reading outcomes, NAPLAN test results come too late. Fowler doesn’t state it but I am sure the school also understands that NAPLAN does not provide information for this group of learners. It is too narrow and not diagnostic in design. It is interesting to note that after using these more diagnostic assessments it was found that the real barriers to reading developments were vocabulary and reading comprehension. These are of course quite linked but neither is well tested by NAPLAN.

Secondly, the professional development focus was cooperative learning using groups of differing ability students using a well-researched evidence based approach. Now cooperative learning has a long history in education but there is a big difference between a few teachers across a school taking this approach and a well-prepared well-trained school adopting it en mass. Its worth noting that recent research has identified a growing trend for schools to adopt streaming approaches in their classrooms – not because it is well researched but because this makes it easier to teach based on NAPLAN content as the key organiser.

Thirdly, basing classroom learning experiences around information based on formative assessment allows for learning personalisation and ensures that the time spent on learning is both accessible and challenging.

Finally, there are things about Richardson Primary school that are not mentioned in this report but that matter a lot. First of all the principal is Jason Borton, who is known to many twitter-active educators as a wise, brave and outspoken leader on key education issues. High quality leadership for low SES schools is critical and systems should be investing in strategies to ensure that. Secondly, I don’t know how but Richardson Primary have managed to have relatively small class sizes – 19 at most in all but kindergarten where the ration is 16-1. Don’t let anyone id you that the size of the class does not matter.

So there you have it, this school has not wasted a cent on extrat resources to drill down on NAPLAN, new fancy learning packages aligned with NAPLAN. In fact they appear t have completely ignored it – and righty so in my view.

Instead Richardson Primary is well placed to support all its children through high quality leadership, a whole school focus on well evidenced pedagogical strategies, intelligent and focussed use of formative and diagnostic assessments across the school and a classroom student teacher ratio that is workable. I don’t know how this school will adapt to the highly financially constrained environment they will find themselves in if the full 6 years of Gonski are not agreed to, but it wont be good and students will be negatively affected.

It would be interesting to collect accounts of what other schools are currently doing that will need to stop. I do hope someone is doing this.

NAPLAN DAY – What did your child do today: go to the zoo or sit a test?

Today is the start of NAPLAN day for every Australian parent with a child in years 3,5,7 or 9. The vast majority of parents will send their children off to school as per usual, perhaps with an extra hug and an exhortation to” just do your best and don’t get stressed”.

But for a small, but growing, number of parents, this is a day to do something quite different – to go to the movies, the zoo, a picnic or just stay home and have a pajama day. They have taken the decision to remove their child from testing.

Now there are no rights or wrongs about this. It is a personal decision. But you may be wondering why people are making this decision.

I have been reading the many testimonials from US parents about why they have come to this decision and the few statements I have come across about withdrawal decisions from Australian parents. In this piece I bring together the key reasons.

Here is one US parent speaking:

 As a nation we have been convinced that our public schools are failing, that the “status quo” is unacceptable, that schools need standards and testing in order to succeed, and that market based reforms such as privatization, charter schools, vouchers and “dumping the losers” are the way to get it done.  The only problem is that none of this is true. None of it…..

It is the test that binds all of this insanity together.  Without the tests, the reformers have nothing to threaten schools with.  Without the tests, the federal government loses power over states.  Without the tests, schools would be able to stop assigning multiple choice tests to kindergarteners.  Without the tests, there would be no way for education reformers to convince you that your schools are much worse than they really are.  Without the tests, there wouldn’t be a target on our teachers.

But tests aren’t really the problem, the real problem is how the tests are used. Tests are an important form of data that can help educators determine how students are doing and how they need to improve.  When used for that purpose, tests are great.  Still limited, but great.  However, when used as a tool for propaganda, profit and pressure, tests are more punitive than positive.  As long as high stakes standardized tests – despite their limitations – are used as the primary means for evaluating schools, they will continue to be far more valuable for punishing states, schools and teachers than for evaluating student achievement.

There isn’t much I can do about this as an educator and an academic other than write and speak when I’m allowed.  But as a parent I have the power to take control over the education of my child, and that’s exactly what my wife and I have decided to do.

 

This opt out movement in the US started as a mere trickle but this year it has reached a critical mass. In Long Island alone more than 20,000 school children did not take the first round of state tests that began April 1[1].

Here is another parent – this one not a teacher – explaining her decision to opt out

Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..

Lawmakers and education reformers are pushing policies that subtract joy from the classroom, and as a parent of two public school students I am looking to push back. That’s why I joined the opt-out movement ..

…this year their father and I refused to send our kids to school for …testing. Instead they slept in, watched TV, played outside and read for pleasure. Their grandma also took them to the museum….

I’ve come to believe standardized tests are to learning as an exhibit of butterflies is to nature. In the attempt to pin down what is measurable, we render something wild and beautiful, dead and on display.

While our public school leaders pay lip service to creativity and innovation, they are mandating more class time be devoted to standardized testing in the name of holding teachers accountable for student progress. Next year, Colorado charges headlong into a pay-for-performance system tying 50 percent of our public school teachers’ evaluation to student progress.

Ravitch, … believes parents can halt this parasitic process by refusing to allow students to take the tests that feed it. “Deny them the data,” is the slogan inspiring me and thousands of parents around the country.

 

But my personal favourite is this letter from Will and Wendy Richardson from Delaware

To the Editor:

After much thought, we have decided to keep our son home during …standardized assessments …. we are basing this decision on our serious concerns about what the test itself is doing to our son’s opportunity to receive a well-rounded, relevant education, and because of the intention of state policy makers to use the test in ways it was never intended to be used. These concerns should be shared by every parent and community member who wants our children to be fully prepared for the much more complex and connected world in which they will live, and by those who care about our ability to flourish as a country moving forward.

Our current school systems and assessments were created for a learning world that is quickly disappearing. In his working life, my son will be expected to solve real world problems, create and share meaningful work with the world, make sense of reams of unedited digital information, and regularly work with others a half a world away using computers and mobile devices. The NJ ASK tells us nothing about his ability or preparedness to do that. The paper and pencil tasks given on the test provide little useful information on what he has learned that goes beyond what we can see for ourselves on a daily basis and what his teachers relay to us through their own assessments in class. We implicitly trust the caring professionals in our son’s classroom to provide this important, timely feedback as opposed to a single data point from one test, data that is reported out six months later without any context for areas where he may need help or remediation. In short, these tests don’t help our son learn, nor do they help his teachers teach him. 

In addition, the test itself poses a number of problems:

         Over the years, the “high stakes” nature of school evaluation has narrowed instruction to focus on only those areas that are tested. This has led to reductions in the arts, languages, physical education and more.

         Research has shown that high scores can be achieved without any real critical thinking or problem solving ability.

         The huge amount of tax dollars that are being spent on creating, delivering and scoring the tests, dollars that are going to businesses with, no surprise, powerful lobbyists in the state capitol and in Washington, DC, is hugely problematic.

         Proposals to use these test scores for up to 50% of a teacher’s evaluation are equally problematic. The tests were not created for such a use, and to create even higher stakes for the NJ ASK will only create more test prep in our classrooms at the expense of the relevant, authentic, real world learning that our students desperately need.

         These tests create unnecessary anxiety and stress in many students who feel immense pressure to do well.

In no way are we taking this step because of our dissatisfaction with our son’s public school, the teachers and administrators there, or our school board. We have simply had enough of national and state policies that we feel are hurting the educational opportunities for all children. At the end of the day, we don’t care what our son scores on a test that doesn’t measure the things we hold most important in his education: the development of his interest in learning, his ability to use the many resources he has at his disposal to direct his own learning, and his ability to work with others to create real world solutions to the problems we face. And we feel our tax dollars are better spent supporting our schools and our teachers who will help him reach those goals as well as the goals detailed by the state standards in ways that are more relevant, engaging and important than four days of testing could ever accomplish.

There are many many parent testimonials to opting out and many impassioned arguments about why they feel it necessary to take this step. But for me the following themes appear to stand out:

  1. The problem isn’t testing per se – but how tests are used –  the lack of validity and reliability in their unintended uses. This testing culture punishes and diminishes teachers.

 In the US this is particularly problematic, because of federal Government mandates that require states to use standardized tests as one of the measures to assess teachers. This was mooted by Ben Jenson from the Grattan Institute at one point and also by Julia Gillard. But because of excellent intervention by AITSL this disastrous situation has been avoided – at least for now.

But we do use NAPLAN scores as the basis for student outcomes reporting on the MySchool website. This turns these tests from a low stakes test to a high stakes event, uses the data in ways that are psychometrically questionable and fosters an unhealthy market choice model of education.

  1. The testing culture has impoverished what happens in classrooms and parents want education to be a joyful experience and to prepare students for active participation as adults in social, economic and political life. The kind of learning that can be tested will not equip students for this.

It is interesting to note that almost none of the testimonies I located were from parent who had children who were stressed or made sick by testing days. This is not to suggest that this situation does not exist , but that this is not what is driving the opt out movement. These are parents who want education to be the best it can be for all students and see the testing culture as undermining that, not just for their child but for all students.

  1. We don’t want to be part of the problem, so we are pushing back, refusing to provide our data to a bad process. In this way we haope to be part of building a movement that will destroy the corporate education stranglehold on our nation’s education.

Many many parents were at pains to state that they don’t believe there is a crisis in public education in the US and that they trust teachers as professionals more than they trust a multiple choice test to assess their childrens’ progress

How will you know what your child is capable of if you don’t have test scores?”  The answer to that is pretty simple.  We trust our son’s teachers.  The privileging of standardized test score data above all other forms of information regarding a student’s progress is a relatively recent phenomenon.  There was a time when we trusted teachers to teach, assess, and evaluate the progress of our students.  We believe this should still be the case.  We don’t need standardized tests to tell us what our kids are capable of.  Our sons’ teachers are more than capable of evaluating and communicating our son’s capabilities in the class using the data they collect through classwork, teacher created assessments and other formative data points that aren’t mandated by the federal government.  Did you know that the new assessments for CCSS will be graded completely by a computer?  Even students’ writing will be scored by a computer.  They’ll tell you that algorithms can be constructed to evaluate a human’s writing capacity.  As an expert in how kids think and learn, I’ll tell you that’s ridiculous.  Testing is one of the least authentic ways to determine  what any child is capable of. Nowhere else in life do we try to determine what somebody is capable of by putting them in front of a test and asking them to fill in bubbles.  Yet in in American public education, that’s quickly becoming the ONLY way we determine what students are capable of.

In Australia one person who has gone public about his decision to withdraw his eldest child from NAPLAN testing is Glen Fowler, ACT branch secretary of the Australian Education Union.

He has withdrawn his year 3 child, because NAPLAN data is published to show how individual schools are performing.

The use of this data to compare and rank schools is a disingenuous practice, and from my point of view, if the data is being misused, there will be no data provided by my family….

I’ve got no issue with standardised tests which are low stakes – I’ve got no issue with sample testing which is done by PISA [Program for International Student Assessment] every year … there’s no capacity for that to damage the reputation of a school or a teacher or a student.

If I had kids of NAPLAN age I would definitely withdraw them, not because of concerns about the effects on my child but as a political act. If enough parents acted in this way, the results would become even more unreliable and eventually there might need to be an acknowledgement that this is not our best policy. NAPLAN is NOT diagnostic; it narrows the curriculum and encourages low-level thinking, and it harming some children[2].

Maybe all this could be seen to be acceptable if there was a more important upside to the enterprise, When the decision to publish NAPLAN results to the school level o MySchool was first announced, there were many noble speeches about using NAPLAN to assess which children and which schools need extra help so that resources can be appropriated for this purpose,  But NAPLAN is NOT being used to identify those schools needing extra funding. And with tonight’s budget decision I very much fear, school funding in Australia will continue to ignore the needs of our most disadvantaged students. In this context NAPLAN is nothing but a cruel joke.

[1] http://www.networkforpubliceducation.org/news/thousands-of-long-island-students-opt-out-of-common-core-testing-long-island-news-from-the-long-island-press/

[2] if you want to think through your position on NAPLAN the ‘Say no to NAPLAN’ site established by Literacy Educators at Sydney University provides an excellent set of papers about why NAPLAN is problematic.

 

The NAPLAN Parliamentary Review’s ‘do nothing’ recommendations: We can do better

Many of us waited with a degree of eagerness – even excitement – for the release of the Parliamentary Inquiry Report into NAPLAN (Effectiveness of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy Report). But what a disappointment!

While it makes a passable fist of identifying many, but by no means all, of the significant issues associated with how our NAPLAN is currently administered and reported, it does miss some of the important details. This could be forgiven if the recommendations showed any evidence of careful thinking, vision, or courage. But in my assessment they are trivial and essentially meaningless

We know a lot about the problems with our current approach to standardised testing and reporting. This Report, with the help of over 95 submissions from a wide range of sources, manages to acknowledge many of them. The key problems include:

  • it is not valid and reliable at the school level
  • it is not diagnostic
  • the test results take 5 months to be reported
  • it is totally unsuitable for remote Indigenous students – our most disadvantaged students – because it is not multilevel, in the language that they speak or culturally accessible (Freeman)
  • now that it has become a high stakes test it is having perverse impacts on teaching and learning
  • some of our most important teaching and learning goals are not reducible to multiple choice tests
  • there is a very real danger that it will be used to assess teacher performance – a task it is not at all suited to
  • some students are being harmed by this exercise
  • a few schools are using it to weed out ‘unsuitable enrolments’
  • school comparisons exacerbate the neoliberal choice narrative that has been so destructive to fair funding, desegregated schools and classrooms and equitable education outcomes
  • there will always be a risk of league tables
  • their unequal impact on high needs school
  • they do not feed into base funding formulas. In spite of the rhetoric about equity and funding prioritization being a key driver for NAPLAN, it is not clear that any state uses the NAPLAN to inform their base funding allocations to schools[1]

However, the ‘solutions’ put forward by the report are limited to the following recommendations:

  1. develop on-line testing to improve test results turn around – something that is happening anyway
  2. take into account the needs of students with a disability and English language learners. Now this recommendation is so vague as to be meaningless
  3. have ACARA closely monitor events to ensure league tables are not developed and that the results feed into funding considerations. This is another vague do nothing recommendation and I am certain ACARA will say that they are already doing this.

This is a recommendation to do nothing – nothing that is not already being done or nothing of meaningful substance.

As an example of the paucity of its analysis I offer the following. The report writes about the lack of diagnostic power of the NAPLAN tests and then says that, even if they were diagnostic, the results come too late to be useful. The report then argues, as its first and only strong recommendation that there needs to be quicker timeframe for making the results available. Did the writer even realize that this would still not make the tests useful as a diagnostic tool?

This Report, while noting the many problems assumes that these can be addressed through minor re-emphasis and adjustments – a steady as she goes refresh. However the problems identified in the Report suggest that tiny adjustments won’t address the issues. A paradigm change is required here.

We are so accustomed now to national standardised testing based on multiple choice questions in a narrow band of subjects being ‘the way we do things’, that it seems our deliberations are simply incapable of imagining that there might be a better way.

To illustrate what I mean I would like to take you back to the 1990s in Australia – to the days when NAPLAN was first foisted on a very wary education community.

How many of us can remember the pre national testing days? Just in case I will try and refresh your memory on some key elements and also provide a little of the ‘insider debates’ before we adopted the NAPLAN tests.

1989 was the historic year when all Education Ministers signed up to a shared set of goals under the now defunct 1989 Hobart Declaration. Australia was also in the process of finalising its first ever national curriculum – a set of Profiles and Statements about what all Australian children should learn. This was an extensive process driven by an interstate committee headed by the then Director of School Education in NSW, Dr Ken Boston.

During this time, I worked in the mega agency created by John Dawkins, the Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, initially in the Secretariat for the Education Ministerial Council (then called the AEC) and a few years later heading up the Curriculum and Gender Equity Policy Unit.

The Education Division at that time was heavily engaged in discussion with ACER and OECD about the development of global tests –the outcomes of which are PISA and a whole swag of other tests.

This was also when standardised testing was also being talked about for Australian schools. Professor Cummings reminds us of this early period in her submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry when she says that

This was also when standardised testing was also being talked about for Australian schools. Professor Cummings reminds us of this early period in her submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry when she says that

…through the Hobart Declaration in 1989 … ‘Ministers of Education agreed to a plan to map appropriate knowledge and skills for English literacy. These literacy goals included listening, speaking, reading and writing….

National literacy goals and sub-goals were also developed in the National Literacy (and Numeracy) Plan during the 1990s, including: …comprehensive assessment of all students by teachers as early as possible in the first years of schooling…to ensure that…literacy needs of all students are adequately addressed and to intervene as early as possible to address the needs of those students identified as at risk of not making adequate progress towards the national…literacy goals….use [of] rigorous State-based assessment procedures to assess students against the Year 3 benchmark for…reading, writing and spelling for 1998 onward.

It is interesting to note that the on entry assessments of children by teachers commitment referred to by Cummings did result in some work in each state. But it never received the policy focus, funding or attention that it deserved., which I regard as a pity The rigorous assessments at Year 3 however grew in importance and momentum. But the key consequence of this commitment was the year 3 state based assessment. Professor Cummings goes on to say that in order to achieve this goal – a laudable goal – the NAP was born. State based at first with very strict provisions about not providing school based data and then eventually what we have today.

Professor Cummings may not have known that many of us working in education at the time did not believe that national multiple choice standardised tests were the best and only answer and that considerable work was undertaken to convince the then Education Minister, Kim Beazley, that there was a better way.

During this period, where National standardised literacy tests were being discussed in the media and behind closed doors at the education Ministers’ Council,

Over this same period the US based Coalition of Essential Schools was developing authentic classroom teaching and learning activities that were also powerful diagnostic assessment exercises. Its stated goal was to build a data bank of these authentic assessments activities and to benchmark student progress against these benchmarks across the US. Its long term goal was to make available to schools across the US a data-base of benchmarked (that is standardised) assessments with support materials about how to use the materials as classroom lessons and how to use the results to a) diagnose a students learning b) plan future learning experiences and c) compare their development to a US wide standard of literacy development.

As the manager of the curriculum policy area, I followed these developments with great interest, as did a number of my work colleagues inside and outside the Department. We saw the potential of these assessments to provide a much less controversial, and less damaging way of meeting the Ministers’ need to show leadership in this area.

Our initiatives resulted in DEETYA agreeing to fund a trial to develop similar diagnostic classroom friendly literacy assessment units as the first part of this process. We planned to use these to demonstrate to decision makers that there was a better solution than standardized multiple-choice tests.

As a consequence I commenced working with Geoff Masters (then at ACER as an assessment expert) and Sharon Burrows (who headed up the Australian Education Union at the time) exploring the potential power of well designed formative assessments, based on authentic classroom teaching formats, to identify those at risk of not being successful at developing literacy skills.

Unfortunately we failed to head off a decision to opt for standardised tests. We failed for a number of reasons:

  • the issue moved too quickly,
  • the OECD testing process had created a degree of enthusiasm amongst that data crunchers who had louder voices,
  • our proposal was more difficult to translate to three word slogans or easy jargon,
  • multiple choice tests were cheaper.

At the time I thought these were the most important reasons. But looking back now, I can also see that our alternative proposal never had a chance because it relied on trusting teachers. Teachers had to teach the units and assess the students’ work. What was to stop them cheating and altering the results? Solutions could have been developed, but without the ICT developments we have access to today, they would have been cumbersome.

I often wonder what would have happened if we had initiated this project earlier and been more convincing. Could we have been ‘the Finland’ of education, proving that we can monitor children’s learning progress, identify students at risk early in their school lives, prioritise funding based on need  – all without the distorting effects of NAPLAN and MySchool?

We can’t go back in time but we can advocate for a bigger, bolder approach to addressing the significant problems associated with our current NAPLAN architecture. The parliamentary report failed us here but this should not stop us.

I have written this piece because I wanted us to imagine, for a moment, that it is possible to have more courageous bold and educationally justifiable policy solutions around assessment than what we have now. The pedestrian “rearrange the deck-chairs” of this Report is just not good enough.

So here is my recommendation, and I put it out as a challenge to the many professional education bodies and teacher Education Institutions out there.

Set up a project as follows:

Identify a group of our most inspiring education leaders through a collaborative peer nomination process. Ensure the group includes young and old teachers and principals, teachers with significant experience in our most challenging schools especially our remote Indigenous schools. Provide them with a group of expert critical friends – policy experts, testing and data experts, assessment and literacy experts and ask them to:

  • Imagine there is no current assessment infrastructure
  • Devise an educationally defensible assessment architecture – taking a green fields approach

I can almost guarantee that this working group would not invent NAPLAN and MySchool or anything like it, and we would be significantly better off.

We have dug ourselves into an educationally indefensible policy hole because we have allowed politicians and the media to drive key decision. To my knowledge we have never established an expert group of educational practitioners with access to specialist expertise to develop better policy solutions in education. Why don’t we give it a try?

Any takers?

[1] I understand that NSW does use the NAPLAN results to channel some additional funds to low performing schools but these are above the line payments.

Is opting out of testing just selfish individualism?

In a recent article about American culture and the opt out society Alan Greenblatt described the growing and successful movement to encourage parents to refuse to allow their child to participate in national standardised testing as selfish individualism.  It might be driven by a parents individual interest, he argues, but it is selfish and against collective interests:

 It’s probably true that the time spent on testing isn’t going to be particularly beneficial to the kids, but it’s very beneficial to the system,” says Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “If you have enough people opt out of these tests, then you have removed some important information that could make our schools better.

I find this amusing because the whole corporate reform movement, for which testing is the centerpiece, is built on the neoliberal belief that the best solution to everything – prisons, health, education etc – is to turn everything into a market and allow competition and individual choice to drive better value.

In fact this was the prime motivation described by Kevin Rudd when he first announced the ‘school transparency agenda’ on the 21 August 2008 at the National Press Club. The speech has mysteriously disappeared but I am quite clear that Kevin Rudd said something along the following lines

“If parents are unhappy with their local school because of the information in MySchool, and decide to transfer their child to another better performing school, then that is exactly what should happen.  This is how schools will improve, through parents voting with their feet.”

Now nobody who works in a struggling school thinks this is the way schools improve. Australia has run an aggressive market choice model of school funding for nearly 2 decades now and all we have to show for it is a highly class segregated schooling system and high levels of inequality.

So let me reassure parents who are concerned about our high stakes NAPLAN testing regime.  Opting out of having your child participate in these tests is much more of a community act than deciding to send your child to an elite school.

Pyne’s threats on Gonski are shameful, but what the NT is doing is worse – much worse.

Trigger Alert:  I am saying things in this article that some people may not want to hear and that many will misconstrue as having a racist intent.  I have the greatest of respect for the many remote NT Indigenous leaders who struggle to be heard: about inadequate resourcing and servicing of their communities; about the lack of consultation; about constant new reforms that are never adequately funded or given time to impact, about ill considered interventionist policies that shame communities and implicitly blame them for everything; and about the racism and neglect by Governments at all levels.

But we must not let the NT government get away with their latest misleading and evil story line that effectively shuts the lid on educational opportunities in remote Indigenous communities.  What they are doing and their false narrative is no better that what we did to the stolen generation.  Both narratives say – there is no hope for the development of strong successful Indigenous children living a traditional life, so lets rip out the funding/supports/services and give up.

The truth is that, while overcoming Indigenous disadvantage is a challenging and even intractable problem, the NT Government has taken advantage of this reality and never seriously tried. They know we expect failure and they hide behind this. The systemic misuse of funds intended for addressing Indigenous disadvantage has occurred across time and with both parties, Labor and the Coalition. The Commonwealth, which has a constitutionally based responsibility to ensure the well-being of Indigenous Australians, occasionally wrings its hands, but has done nothing to call them on this fraud.

But this latest funding cut and its disgraceful rationale is a new low in racist viciousness and we must act.

So here is NT Governments latest evil and misleading argument:

The NT plans to build “a sustainable education system that is better designed to meet the needs of our Territory students and improve their results”, by cutting funds and teaching positions in remote schools because:

  1. NT schools and teachers are the best resourced in the country
  2. But NT children’s school results are the worst in the country
  3. NT education funding and teacher numbers have grown, while enrolments, attendance and school results are down
  4. So the government is cutting teaching and staffing positions in remote schools and  refocusing on early education with 63 extra teachers

Now even if this was true this is not a reason to cut funding.  The increase in spending could be focusing on the wrong things.  It’s a justification for reviewing things.  However the NT government is pre-empting its own review and cutting funds to Remote Indigenous Schools upfront.

But lets looks closer at these so-called facts

Fact 1 – NT schools and teachers are the best resourced in the country

This ‘fact’ is based on the 2013 Report on Government Services (ROGS).  They argue that it shows that the NT government:

  • funded schools at a higher rate than other jurisdictions.
  • has student-teacher ratios that are among the best in the nation.

The ROGS Report shows that the student teacher ratio in the NT is 11.3 whereas in other states it is between 12.8 and 14.3

But here are some inconvenient facts about the NT education funding and the NT staff-student ratio that they do not tell you.

It costs a lot more to staff remote Indigenous schools[1] – the additional cost for relocating teachers, leave provisions back t home base, professional development, remote allowance and so on, make the cost of employing a teacher in a remote/ very remote schools about 50% higher.  But the NT share of Commonwealth/state funding takes this into account so they are already funded for this.

There may be a case for arguing that the Commonwealth state remote metrics do not factor in the full cost of this servicing cost but this case has rarely been put by the NT.  Why? Well I suspect it is because they know that the  Commonwealth knows that they have a weak case because they do not spend even the proportion that they are given on remote servicing.

But lets be clear, this additional funding is for the purpose of delivering, not a higher quality service, but just a basic service.  In regards to quality, the challenges of attracting high quality staff to remote/very remote positions is such that the NT has the highest level of first year out teachers in its remote schools and an extremely high turnover rate.  In other words it costs a lot more but the service quality is inevitably poorer.

The NT claim to have a very low teacher-student ratio but there are two problems with the metric they provide above.

Firstly. The NT have convinced the Reporting Committee responsible for agreeing the schools data in the ROGS Report that Indigenous Education Workers (IEWs)  in Remote schools should count as teachers.  Now these might be highly respected members of the community, but they are ex-CDEP workers with no formal teacher education qualifications.  The IEWs are included in the NT figures as teachers in remote contexts so it is not possible to tell what the figures would look like were these non-teachers excluded.  However the teacher – student ratio would definitely be higher.

Secondly, The NT systematically underfunds remote schools relative to its Darwin schools so this figure does not represent the actual teacher student ratio in remote/very remote schools.  I have written about this elsewhere.  The NT funds on attendance not enrolment and this systematically discriminates against remote schools. Funding on attendance and not enrolment in a situation where attendance is running under 60% means that the remote schools have been ripped off by 100s and 100s of teachers already, before any additional cuts are made.  They also have a school staffing formula that includes “over the core additional teachers” across Darwin schools that are the historical residue of ‘wontok type deals done between pollies.  Remote politicians have not been as successful in this deal playing environment.

Thus Fact One is FALSE especially for remote schools

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Fact 2: Our children’s school results are the worst in the country

The 2013 Northern Territory NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) results show lowest student attainment in Australia in every test domain and year level, consistent with previous years.

For further details please see the 2013 NAPLAN Summary Report

Now this is TRUE but this “worst in the country” minimizes the systemic failure that these NAPLAN data represent.

There are, in fact, many many classrooms right across the remote Indigenous communities of the NT where 100% of the students score O – yes Zero – on their NAPLAN test.  That is to say, they write their names on the paper but are unable to complete a single question.

And the even sadder fact is that many of their young parents cannot read or write in English either.  In fact the youngest English language literate residents in some communities are the youngest person who went to school in the Mission era.  When the mission schools generation die out some communities will be almost totally bereft of English language functionally literate adults.

Now I am not saying this to be racist – or to put down the struggles of Indigenous peoples to enact a form of self-determination and revive the law and culture of their ancestors.  I see no reason why this should have resulted in the educational calamity that now faces communities across the NT.

I see this as systemic willful and morally corrupt failure on the part of the NT Government and inadequate and inappropriate intervention by the Commonwealth.

Fact 2 is true

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FACT 3: While education funding and teacher numbers have grown, enrolments, attendance and school results are down

Expenditure

NT education expenditure is up, and has been higher since 2010, but this is because of a significant injection of Commonwealth dollars flowing from the National Partnership Programs. So while this may be true it is not possible to confirm or deny whether NT specific funding for school has increased above and over normal cost of living increases.

But what is being implied in fact 3 is that ‘we have invested huge amounts of resources into increasing student performance and school attendance and in spite of this, they continue to be poor (We have done everything, the failure is not ours but ‘theirs’).

Attendance

Attendance has gone down too. Not by a lot but it continues to be a serious issue for almost all remote schools with the larger schools having the poorer attendance. The NT has instituted attendance strategies from time to time but in most cases the only resources put to the strategy have been central office staffing resources to ‘support schools’.  Unlike Darwin schools remote and very remote schools do not have home liaison officer funded positions and with staffing based on attendance-not-enrolment, there are no spare staff to undertake the community work that might help get kids to schools.

In 2008-9 NT did commit some central office resources to work with schools and their communities to develop Remote Learning Partnership Agreements (RLPAs).  These took months of careful and high quality consultation and over  this period some 13 or so were signed with great fanfare.  However true to form the NT did not put any funding into resourcing the things it committed the Department to do as its part of the agreement.  Things that the community had requested were agreed to in writing and a high profile formal signing ceremony but then never implemented.

note: The creation of deputy principal positions employing respected elders was one such initiative and it was funded years later through the National Partnership program (Commonwealth funds) 

The final betrayal however came from the then Minister of Education for the NT, Marion Scrymgour, who without warning, declared that schools would teacher only in English for the first 4 out of 5 hours of every day.  Now in the consultations for the RLPAs, the communities where a bilingual program still existed, had confirmed that they did want their children to become competent in English speaking, reading and writing  but that they also wanted the bilingual  program to continue and did not see these two goals as incompatible. This decision was the final nail in the coffin of what could have been an important circuit breaker around engaging the community around student attendance.

So when people say to me, “I don’t know what can be done about school attendance in Indigenous communities we have tried everything”, my response is ‘ this is rubbish, signing an agreement, not funding it and then betraying it, does not count as trying something’.

School results

The 2013 Northern Territory NAPLAN (National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) results show the lowest student attainment in Australia in every subject area and year level. This has not changed over the past five years.  This is true and the consequences for the future viability of NT remote communities will be truly disastrous.  Have they tried everything?  Not by a long shot. They have not tried:

A faired needs based staffing formula –  something that most other states have done and that Gonski  was all about.  Adam Giles, their Chief Minister even admitted that his reason for rejecting the Labor Gonski offer is because it would require his Government to increase education expenditure outside of Darwin and transfer resources out of Darwin schools.

A properly resourced Bilingual program where communities see this as appropriate – The truth is that resources were ripped away from remote schools running bilingual programs early in 2000 and since then schools have struggled on with almost no support.

Fully funded the agreements reached under the RLPA negotiations not through Commonwealth National Partnership funds but from NT resources to fulfill commitments made by the NT.  This would have freed up the National Partnership money to be used for the purposes for which it was intended.

A fully funded student attendance strategy built around local level community consultation across all the clan groups that make up a community.  In spite of all the rhetoric, this has not been undertaken.

Fact 3 is in part unproven and in part false. Overall it is based on a cynical and racist logic that because something has not been achieved it is OK to give up.  It assumes that it is not possible to have successful outcomes for children in remote Australia, no matter how much we invest. That is what we assumed when we took children from Indigenous families, because we believed this was the only solution.  We might not be taking children away but is leaving them, knowingly to fail to thrive educationally, any better?

_____________________________________

Fact 4 – Government is refocusing attention on early education with 63 extra teachers because the only schooling levels where smaller class[es] have been proven to make a significant difference are in the early years.

The NT Report justifies this by referring to Productivity Commission, the Grattan Institute and by the Qld Commission of Audit.  But if you follow these claims back, all three reports draw on the work of John Hattie who rather infamously said, ‘I wouldn’t invest a single penny into smaller class sizes’

In fact, Hattie’s own research has been shown to be rather imperfect but even his work on class size does suggest a positive if small student effect-size overall and a more significant student effect-size in two contexts.  The first context is, as NT argues, in the early years, but the second is – you guessed it – with highly disadvantaged English language learners.

SO Fact 4 is false and based on selective use of poorly evidenced data

Now I know we need to priorities working to ensure that Gonski reforms can continue.  But this issue, too, is vital.  So I am begging – yes begging – all of you who care about justice for Indigenous Australians not to put this issue at the back of the social justice bus.  Because that is what has been done with issues facing remote Indigenous Australians for over 200 years.

 We must and we can do both.


[1] 2012 NT DET Annual Report quote The cost of delivering educational services in the Northern Territory is significantly greater than in any other state or territory of Australia. The factors contributing to this are varied, but many are a result of the large proportion of NT schools in remote, isolated and very remote communities.

Remoteness increases costs associated with personnel (school and teaching staff), infrastructure (including staff housing), curriculum delivery and travel.”