Opinion: The fundamental flaws of standardised testing

Opinion: The fundamental flaws of standardised testing

Australia’s National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) incites controversy, with very few agreeing on its purpose or value.

Education Ministers from the ACT, NSW, Queensland and Victoria last year commissioned a review of NAPLAN. Subsequent recommendations are not supported by Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan, who continues to defend a standardised approach to education. Tehan claims that, following a global comparison, NAPLAN ‘is regarded as one of the best tools for measuring how children are going at school’.

Meanwhile, the Australian Education Union’s recent State of our Schools survey reveals antipathy by teachers and principals towards the testing regime, indicating it’s ‘not fit for purpose’; and Professor Pasi Sahlberg describes the eastern state review as ‘trying to do the wrong thing just a little bit righter.’

Standardised testing is not new. Its well-intentioned beginnings in the Australian context date back to the late 1800’s, when it was used to stimulate the professional growth of teachers and schools, leading to the adjustment of teaching strategies to improve student learning. In plain terms, standardised testing was designed to develop teacher capacity.

This century, more than 200 years on, standardised testing data has progressively crept into the public domain. Not only has the data become public, but individual – as opposed to collective – student achievement is available. The consequence? Much of the pressure to perform has been transferred to students. There has been a shift from the formative professional growth of teachers aimed at generating improved student learning, to high-stakes judgement and comparison. Children have become victims in this evolution and we – the adults responsible for the wellbeing of children – have become conditioned to believe this is ‘normal’.

Studies that have taken place since the inception of standardised testing give rise to four fundamental flaws of NAPLAN.

  1. NAPLAN fails to adopt the basic principles of educational neuroscience and child psychology.

Educational neuroscience research has skyrocketed this century, radically challenging what we thought we knew about how the brain works, the plasticity of the brain and how people learn. Yet there remains a disconnect between neuroscience and educational practice and policy.

For example, the brain’s limbic system assesses everything that enters the brain as either a threat or a reward. When the brain perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system activates a ‘fight or flight’ response. Threats are not limited to the physical – they include psychological and social states; for example the performance anxiety that can be provoked by a test. Students’ brains must be in the reward state for effective learning to take place.

In terms of psychology, it is well documented that goals that are imposed on a person or organisation – enter: NAPLAN – can have concerning side effects including poorer outcomes and unethical behavior such as cheating. Conversely, when children are self-directed, have a strong sense of autonomy and are guided to set goals for themselves, they tend to be highly motivated and have a propensity to attain greater outcomes. The sense of accomplishment experienced when reaching self-determined goals, motivates children to pursue tremendous ventures that deepen learning.

  1. NAPLAN does not measure what it claims to measure.

NAPLAN does not show what children know and are capable of. The psychology community identifies this as the distinction between learning and performance.

Learning involves permanent change, improvement or transformation, and decades of research indicates learning can be unobservable. Performance, on the other hand, is the observable demonstration of temporary fluctuations of understanding or skill.

Literature suggests that learning and performance can be non-reciprocal. In other words, when one is strong, the other can be weak.

I succeeded in the highest level of secondary school Maths and can no longer recall anything relating to periodic functions, kinematics or calculus. This is a concrete example of performance, not learning, and the non-reciprocal relationship of the two. Had NAPLAN existed when I was a young student, I perhaps would have contributed to a positive result for my school. But have I contributed anything of value to the world in terms of Maths beyond the school environment? Absolutely not.

Through NAPLAN, students are required to demonstrate performance, not learning.

  1. NAPLAN narrows our focus.

Whilst currently being transitioned online, NAPLAN essentially asserts that a pen-and-paper approach to literacy and numeracy is key to a child’s journey on the education conveyer belt. The very nature of NAPLAN cultivates an industrial revolution mindset of compliance within children.

NAPLAN promotes a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. That is, in their quest to derive the single correct answer to a question, children receive the inadvertent message that learning is about what to think, rather than how to think. Children are discouraged from exploring novel solutions to complex real-world problems. NAPLAN stifles big picture thinking, it doesn’t promote the genius of connecting dots, and it crushes creativity. In short, it standardises our children.

  1. NAPLAN overlooks skills that will set children up for a prosperous future.

For several years we have known that academic aptitude, as we currently define it, is a poor indicator of whether or not a graduate will be a good fit for a workplace. In a world that is increasingly automated, an education system that emphasises standardisation serves only to educate children into unemployment.

In this, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, employers are crying out for new fluencies. EQ (emotional quotient) and the CQ’s (cultural quotient, collaborative quotient, creative quotient, and curiosity quotient), are on equal standing with IQ (intelligence quotient). Collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, problem-finding, global awareness, intercultural sensitivity, adaptability, empathy and tenacity, alongside the ability to persuade and the ability to withstand persuasion, are skills and characteristics that were once undervalued, but which will now secure future employment.

Nations are calling for compassionate hearts for design thinking and innovation, to create solutions that restore and better serve humanity. Why, then, would our education system – the very system charged with inspiring tomorrow’s leaders – continue to implement such an archaic, limiting and lifeless standardised testing phenomenon, that lacks the integrity we aim to instill in our children?

Our policymakers’ obsession with standardised testing is misguided and serves only to add to an already anxiety-fuelled society. Energy is better invested nurturing within children an appetite for lifelong learning and a heart for others. We need to make peace with the fact that the fostering of these qualities will surpass any performance that can be measured by standardised tests.

We would do well to heed the words of David Geurin who writes, if standardised test scores are our top priority, then ‘our mission is more about adults than it is about kids’.

Jane Mueller is the principal of Living Faith Lutheran Primary School, Brisbane. Twitter: @jane_n_mueller