As another round of NAPLAN data is released, the public outcry of the pros and cons of “high stakes testing” intermingles with the shock reaction to the seemingly low standards of the Australian education system. Are Australian students reaching international standards? Why is Kazakhstan “beating” us? Are these tests giving our kids anxiety? What impact is this having on teachers? And on, and on it goes.
The latest addition to Australia’s obsession with high stakes testing comes in the form of a rumoured literacy and numeracy test for school leavers in Victoria. In response to the falling literacy and numeracy standards of our graduating high school students, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority would like to add an additional test to VCE’s already stressful repertoire in order for students to gain a VCE or VCAL school leavers certificate. This is, apparently, the ingenious answer employers and tertiary institutions are looking for in order to ensure that their future recruits meet minimum literacy and numeracy standards.
Is it just me, or is there something missing from this conversation?
I think it is obvious that we have a problem here. The data we have available to us screams it loud and clear: our students are falling behind, and they are not making it through school with the basic, necessary skills that they need to thrive – or even just function – in the world (for more information, take a look here). However, the conversation surrounding the merits and pitfalls of NAPLAN and the need for such testing systems is, in my opinion, an unwelcome distraction from an even harsher reality that we are desperately trying to avoid: the reality of what it is going to take to fix it.
As someone who has recently completed an Initial Teacher Education course (in English teaching, no less), it astounds me that I have a very limited capacity to recognize and fix literacy problems in my classroom. Sure, I can tell you that a student has difficulty reading or writing, but the way to fix that (especially in the limited time I have with them) is about as clear as mud to me.
When I think about the individual students impacted by this phenomenon, frustration takes over. I think back to a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed junior student, eager to please and offer her thoughts, no matter how off topic they were. However, when I asked her to read, she dutifully and painstakingly took up the task without any meaningful comprehension. When it came to writing, her bright eyes dulled and her only response were nonsensical mumbles. Armed with nothing but sheer passion, I was determined to help her. I gently questioned, encouraged and at times scolded – anything to get something on the page to work with. When I expressed concern to fellow teachers, they smiled wearily and said, ‘It’s not your fault. You’re doing a great job!’, because they too did not seem to have the answers. By the time the tests came back (indicating Dyslexia), she was at least 4-5 years behind her peers in basic literacy skills. Although I was comforted by the fact that I had a term to type into Google, I was overwhelmed by my new challenge- how could I, with no training or knowledge, help my student learn to read and write? Basic fixes were suggested – blue paper, coloured boxes, staggered instructions, all of which slowly helped her follow along in class. However, the set text remained at a standard too high for her to access, and my attention still had to be split 23 ways. NAPLAN told me she was behind (something I had figured out long before), but it certainly didn’t give me strategies to fix it. Despite small victories and improvements (not measurable by any standardized test), when it came to the end of year exam and she submitted a blank paper, the realization hit. I failed her. The system I am apart of failed her.
So here is a revolutionary idea.
Instead of creating more tests, we need to start systematically building up the capacity and confidence of teachers to diagnose and create successful interventions for our low-literacy students.
Instead of lamenting over our ever-falling standards, we need a more intensive focus in our Initial Teacher Education programs regarding what low-literacy and numeracy looks like in the classroom, and more importantly, how to effectively differentiate in order to help all of our students learn.
Instead of comparing ourselves to Kazakhstan, we need to increase the funding of learning specialists in our schools who are most in-need.
Instead of panicking about the impact of low NAPLAN scores on our children’s self-esteem, we need to make success on such tests a reality for every single student.
It is time to stop talking about NAPLAN and get back to something more important: learning.