Last year, a report from the University of Melbourne said the Australian education system needs to revamp the way students are being assessed to equip them with the skills necessary to “future-proof their employability prospects”.
According to Professor Sandra Milligan from Melbourne Graduate School of Education (MGSE), who led the study, current assessment practices are “not preparing students for the next century of work”, potentially leaving an entire generation in the lurch.
However, calls to shake up the way students are assessed have not fallen on deaf ears, and concerted efforts are underway to produce a more equitable system that provides reliable data and rapid feedback for students to help lift their performance.
Founded in 1998 by teacher Wayne Houlden, Sydney-based edtech company Janison currently delivers more than ten million online assessments annually in 120 countries, helping teachers, students and governments achieve meaningful educational outcomes through measuring knowledge and providing key insights.
In March, Janison was accredited as the Australian National Service Provider (NSP) by the OECD for the PISA for Schools assessment, giving the company exclusive rights to manage the roll-out of PISA for Schools across Australia for the next two years.
Janison is also working with the NSW Education Department in the roll out of the online Check-in, which supplements existing school practices to identify how students are performing in literacy and numeracy and to help teachers tailor their teaching more specifically to student needs.
The Check-in tool was originally rolled out for students in Years 3, 5, 9, but has now expanded to Years 4, 6, and 8 as governments, think tanks and teachers’ unions see the model’s value.
NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell says the assessment tool is positively contributing to the curriculum overhaul, while the Grattan Institute is calling it the best data set to gauge lost learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, the Australian Education Union hailed the tool as “an enlightened approach to assessment”.
Helping teachers stage immediate interventions
Janison's CEO David Caspari said the assessment tool has been crucial in pinpointing the gaps which has informed the NSW Government’s policy around scaling its tutoring programs to address some of the learning gaps.
“It provides results in 24 hours, meaning that teachers can stage immediate interventions and address learning gaps in the classroom live instead of having to wait for weeks or months as traditional pen and paper tests would require a teacher to do,” Caspari told The Educator.
“So, it really has been a very impactful program across the entire state,” he said.
While the Check-in assessment is only in NSW for now, other education departments in Australia are reportedly watching the assessment’s roll out with growing interest.
“It’s fair to say that Check-in is unique in that schools are begging for more of this particular product, and that’s not always the case with every assessment product that is deployed at scale”.
Another added benefit, he says, is the way in which the online format allows schools to streamline the assessment process.
“Teachers are crying out for more time to drive better outcomes in teaching and learning. The digitisation factor frees up so much time; it also provides insights that teachers and administrators can use to improve outcomes,” he said.
“This assessment allows educators to author the assessment that we build on our platform. It then gets run digitally and auto marked by AI. The measurement, reporting and analysis is far more sophisticated than anything that can be done on pen and paper”.
‘Equity at the forefront’
A major challenge for education departments across Australia, has been how to produce a test that addresses the inequities in the current model.
Caspari said Janison’s approach to educational improvement “puts equity at the forefront”.
“We believe that, from a socio-economic standpoint, the poorest education systems in the most socially disadvantaged places in the world deserve to get the same quality of education as the most affluent parts of the world do,” he said.
“This obviously applies in Australia, too, because not all schools and not all states and territories are alike at this stage”.
Caspari said one of the many ways in which Janison ‘walks its talk’ in terms of improving equity in education is by printing ICAS in braille even though this costs more money and the rest of the assessment is digital.
“One of the exciting things about using online digital technology in assessments is that it does have attributes that allow you to address the equity gap,” he said.
“For example, it allows educators and assessment bodies to use technology like branching questions, which is only possible in digital assessment and offers different routes to a test depending on students’ answers”.
Caspari said branching adapts in real time to candidates’ performance, providing a “richer insight” to address teaching and learning outcomes in disadvantaged communities where students might be falling behind and where a traditional pen and paper test might not be able to identify those gaps.
Bridging the digital divide
Caspari said Janison is helping schools leverage technology to close the ‘digital divide’ – an existing issue that was put in the spotlight during the monumental shift to remote learning in 2020.
"Even in this day and age, equity of internet connectivity is not the same, in Australia or globally," he explained, adding that Janison's technology is designed to give students in remote or regional schools the exact same exam experience as metro schools, even if they have low or zero internet bandwidth.
The PISA for Schools test is another project that puts equity at the core of its mission.
PISA for Schools is a school-level assessment that provides schools with a holistic "health check", offering valuable insights on academic performance, learning environment and how well students can apply their knowledge.
“At its core, this assessment is about providing educators with the best available evidence to improve school performance,” he said.
“It’s also an anonymised assessment – not one that provides information back to individuals’ performance”.
Caspari said the program leverages some of the strengths of the PISA program but provides other key insights as well.
“As far as we’re concerned, it is a unique product as in it leverages the gold standard, focuses on school improvement, is low stakes for schools and high value,” he said.
“PISA assessment provides a system-wide view of performance, but PISA for Schools provides greater magnification and focus for educators”.
The program allows schools to receive their own tailored report that contains more than 70 pages detailing how well students can apply their skills in reading, maths and science, and how to solve real-world problems.
Caspari said PISA for Schools “leverages the gold standard data” that is generated by the global PISA framework but without the controversial aspects such as league tables and public results.
“We will never publish results or create league tables. The data is owned by the school and the school alone".