The release of the latest NAPLAN results this week identified a problem with student performance in writing. This prompted the federal minister for education, Simon Birmingham, to state these results “are of real concern”. And the CEO of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Robert Randall, added that “we’ll have a conversation with states and territories” to pinpoint the exact problem.
You get the message: there is a problem. As I see it we have a much bigger problem than the one the minister and ACARA are talking about.
At the moment, we have two concurrent and competing ‘systems’ of education operating in Australia, and particularly in NSW: one is the implementation of the state-authorised curriculum and the other, the regime of mass tests which includes NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate.
The bigger problem
NAPLAN results get everyone’s attention, not just mainstream media and parents, but also teachers and school communities. Attention is effectively diverted from curriculum implementation. That means that resources, teacher attention and class time is soaked up with attempts to improve the results of under-performing students. It means that the scope and depth of the curriculum is often ignored in favour of drills and activities aimed at improving student test performance.
In a way, this is sadly ironic for NSW, given that new syllabuses rolled out across 2014-2015 have the development of literacy and numeracy skills as two of seven general capabilities. Specific content in these syllabuses has been developed to strengthen and extend student skills in these two areas.
Before teachers had the chance to fully implement the new syllabuses and assess student learning, the NSW government jumped in and imposed a ‘pre-qualification’ for the HSC: that students would need to achieve a Band 8 in the Year 9 NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy test. Yet another requirement in the heavily monitored NSW education system.
And if the federal education minister has his way, we’ll see compulsory national testing of phonics for Year 1 students, in addition to the NAPLAN tests administered in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; and then in NSW, students will have to deal with the monolithic HSC.
So the ongoing and worsening problem for schools will be finding the space for teaching and learning based on the NSW curriculum.
Similar things are happening in other states and territories.
The dark side of national testing
As we know, mass testing has a dark side. Far from being the reasonable, benign ‘snapshot’ of a child’s skills at a point in time, we know that the publication of these tests increase their significance so that they become high-stakes tests, where parental choice of schools, the job security of principals and teachers and school funding are affected.
And here I will add a horror story of how this can be taken to extremes. In Florida in 2003, the Governor, Jeb Bush, called the rating of schools based with a letter A-F, based on test results, a “key innovation”. Using this crude indicator, schools in this US state were subsequently ‘labelled’ in a simplistic approach to numerous complex contextual features such as attendance rates, student work samples, the volume and types of courses offered and extracurricular activities.
Already in Australia NAPLAN results have a tight grip on perceptions of teacher and school effectiveness. And quite understandably, schools are concentrating their efforts in writing on the ‘text types’ prescribed in the NAPLAN tests: imaginative writing – including narrative writing, informative writing and persuasive writing.
So what might be going wrong with writing?
As I see it, the pressure of NAPLAN tests is limiting our approaches to writing by rendering types of writing as prescriptive, squeezing the spontaneity and freshness out of students’ responses. I agree it is important for students to learn about the structural and language features of texts and to understand how language works. However it appears that schools are now drilling students with exercises and activities around structural and language features of text types they’ll encounter in the test.
Has the test, in effect, replaced the curriculum?
Again taking NSW as an example, writing has always been central, dating back over a century to the reforms in both the primary and secondary curriculum in 1905 and 1911 respectively. The then Director of Education, Peter Board, ensured that literature and writing were inextricably linked so that the “moral, spiritual and intellectual value of reading literature” for the individual student was purposeful, active and meaningful. In addition to this, value and attention was assigned to the importance of personal responses to literature.
This kind of thinking was evident in the 1971 NSW junior secondary school English syllabus, led by Graham Little, which emphasised students using language in different contexts for different purposes and audiences. In the current English K-10 Syllabus, the emphasis is on students planning, composing, editing and publishing texts in print or digital forms. These syllabus documents value students engaging with and composing a wide range of texts for imaginative, interpretive and analytical purposes. And not just to pass an externally-imposed test.
In a recent research project with schools in south-west Sydney, participating teachers, like so many talented teachers around Australia, improved student writing skills and strengthened student enjoyment of writing by attending to pedagogical practices, classroom writing routines and strategies through providing students choice in writing topics and forms of writing; implementing a measured and gradated approach to writing; using questioning techniques to engage students in higher order thinking and portraying the teacher as co-writer.
These teachers reviewed the pressures and impact of mass testing on their teaching of writing, and like so many around Australia, looked for ways to develop the broad range of skills, knowledge and understandings necessary for all students, as well as ways to satisfy the accountability demands like NAPLAN.
Without the yoke of constant mass testing I believe teachers would be able to get on with implementing the curriculum and we’d see an improvement not only in writing, but also across the board.
Don Carter is senior lecturer in English Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Education, Master of Education (Curriculum), Master of Education (Honours) and a PhD in curriculum from the University of Sydney (2013). Don is a former Inspector, English at the Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards and was responsible for a range of projects including the English K-10 Syllabus. He has worked as a head teacher English in both government and non-government schools and was also an ESL consultant for the NSW Department of Education. Don is the secondary schools representative in the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia and has published extensively on a range of issues in English education, including The English Teacher’s Handbook A-Z (Manuel & Carter) and Innovation, Imagination & Creativity: Re-Visioning English in Education (Manuel, Brock, Carter & Sawyer).