Should schools abolish standardised testing?

For decades, standardised testing has been a familiar and long-running part of Australian education, but is it doing more harm than good?

Around the world, some countries, including Finland and Wales in the UK, have moved away from this kind of testing to accommodate a broader assessment of students’ academic skillsets.

So far, the experiment has delivered promising results – particularly in Finland, which sits near the top of the global education rankings. Yet, the debate persists. While standardised testing aims to hold schools accountable and let parents know how their kids are performing, some argue they are too narrow a measure and cause unnecessary anxiety for students.

Maurie Mulheron, president of the NSW Teachers Federation (NSWTF), told The Educator that the 2010 NAPLAN moratorium dispute was “a watershed moment” for Australian education.

“It arose because teachers asserted that the profession should control the use of test data rather than have student assessment turned into an adult spectator sport. Across Australia bans were put on place on NAPLAN testing for that year and were lifted once protocols were agreed to in order to protect the misuse of the data,” he said.

But there are still concerns, Mulheron says.

“Too often, testing is distorting pedagogy, curriculum options are narrowing and school-based assessment is de-emphasised.  Another serious threat is the entry of for-profit ‘edu-businesses’ into the test industry,” he said.

“These companies seek to exert an undue influence on the design of the tests.  A recent example of this is their push to have the written component of NAPLAN marked by computers, not humans. Not too many teachers would mourn the death of standardised testing.”

Mulheron suggested that a more economical approach would be sample testing enabling governments to still collect data from across the system for the purposes of planning.

However, Robert Randall, CEO of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), is a firm believer that the pros of the test outweigh the cons.

“NAPLAN provides valuable information for teachers, parents and governments about the key areas of literacy and numeracy, showing us where students are doing well – and not so well,” he told The Educator.

“NAPLAN assessments complement those conducted by teachers in schools on a regular basis. However, NAPLAN provides parents and carers, teachers, school leaders and policy-makers with national level data against which they can benchmark local information.”

For students, NAPLAN involves four hours of tests, four times over seven years of schooling. Randall said this small investment in time allows success to be measured and decision-making about where further improvement is necessary.

Professor Kaye Stacey from the University of Melbourne agrees that Australian schools should keep standardised testing.

“Australia has very little standardised testing below Year 12 and we are not part of the testing epidemic spreading elsewhere. In contrast to testing in some other countries, NAPLAN tests content that teachers are aiming to teach,” she told The Educator.

“Teachers see the items and the results and can use these to understand strengths and weaknesses in their program.”

However, she pointed out that NAPLAN cannot test all the goals of the Australian Curriculum, such as problem solving and reasoning in Mathematics.

“Good schools should not be satisfied with good NAPLAN results, but must also monitor their students’ achievement of the whole curriculum,” she said.