Last year, Australia's three largest states shook the education world when they announced an unprecedented alliance to “comprehensively review” NAPLAN in order to determine what form of the test works best for students.
The decision, taken by the governments of NSW, Victoria and Queensland, followed strong concerns among school leaders that the existing process disrupts and detracts from student learning.
In September this year, the independent review of NAPLAN was released, proposing sweeping changes to the writing assessment and a greater focus on critical thinking and science.
Under the proposed Australian National Standardised Assessment (ANSA), NAPLAN would be undertaken earlier in the year to reduce undue stress and see results returned within one week to better inform teaching and learning for the year ahead.
Another recommendation is the shifting of the Year 9 test to Year 10 so that it can better inform teachers, parents and students when making critical decisions regarding subject selection for years 11 and 12.
However, the reforms to the controversial assessment are just one part of a broader push to ensure that the academic outcomes of Australian students are turbocharged, especially after a year that has seen young people fall behind in their learning.
In a virtual panel discussion hosted by The Educator, three principals recently highlighted some unique opportunities for education systems to improve the way student outcomes are measured.
Greg Miller, principal of St Luke’s Catholic College in Sydney, said that while the foundations of literacy and numeracy are important, they’re “only the beginning, not the end”.
“There is a lot of feedback from prospective employers talking about the development of what is generally and colloquially known as ‘soft skills’, but there is nothing soft about being a critical thinker or a problem-solver,” he told The Educator.
“The general capabilities were developed around the same time that NAPLAN first came in. More energy needs to be directed towards how to explicitly teach, assess and track each child’s growth in the general capabilities over time”.
Miller said prospective employers are looking at the ability of young people to problem-solve, inquire and pose questions, relate to one another and manage oneself.
“It’s not just about future work, because that will be more changeable over the next ten years more so than it was during the last fifty. It’s more about developing the agile skillsets required for students to embrace the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous [VUCA] world,” he said.
“We could do worse to have a real deep dive into what consistent assessment and feedback looks like in those particular areas to complement the very necessary development of skills in literacy and numeracy over time”.
Berwick Lodge Primary School principal Henry Grossek, said his school discovered an important, and looming, challenge for student assessment during its experience with remote and flexible learning.
“A substantial percentage of children’s work seemed to improve quite dramatically compared to what we envisage back here at school,” he said.
“While online assessment is certainly a way of the future, in terms of primary children, the challenge of parents doing the work for them or students Googling answers at home tends to muddy the waters”.
Grossek said that if NAPLAN is going to have a genuine place and win over a vast majority of people, it will need to look more deeply at the capabilities.
“The issue with this for NAPLAN is that the capabilities are very hard to measure and do comparisons of systemically,” he said.
“It’s easier to do the harder subjects like maths, which is a bit more black and white, but once you start talking about creativity, that’s a difficult one, because how do you measure creativity? There are two parts to it: volume and value of creativity. This area is subjective and in the eye of the beholder across disciplines”.
Grossek said sooner or later, “something will need to give” regarding the way NAPLAN assesses the core subjects.
“My school has put more time and resources into literacy and numeracy, but the kids don’t come to school for 28 hours, and my teachers don’t work for 40 hours straight, so something needs to drop off, and we’re not measuring what’s dropping off as we’re putting more time and resources into, albeit it, very important subjects,” he said.
“So, if NAPLAN is going to have a comprehensive place in data collection on student performance and school improvement, it has to go even further than ANSA, because all subjects are of great importance in children’s learning”.
Speaking on upper secondary schools in this context, Derek Scott, principal and CEO of Haileybury, said the way that the ATAR currently works in tandem with senior certificates is outdated and requires a rethink.
“I’m not suggesting that we do away with the ATAR or with the current silo-based subjects involved, but instead of having all of your time spent on five or six subjects to get the maximum study scores in your ATAR, we could take that from, say, four subjects,” Scott said.
“This could free up about twenty-to-thirty per cent of your time that you could use on a range of other skill capability-focused passion areas that students could follow”.
Scott said the notion of building general capabilities that are micro-credentialed through passions, projects and subjects that students are doing into the upper secondary program is exciting.
“A lot of this micro-credentialling could be delivered virtually, so you could have 150 of these areas that are delivered virtually. This addresses the disadvantage issue because they can be delivered to students anywhere in the country,” he said.
“If we do that, we can really start to look at really building some general capabilities in our students and measuring it that can feed into a better outcome and have them ready for this exciting world of work after they leave school”.
Miller agreed that cutting back to about four subjects for the ATAR would be a good idea.
“But I think the key would be that at the end, part of the credential is that the student has to provide a learner profile for their future,” he said.
“It’s the first fifteen years of a sixty-year curriculum. They’re not going to stop learning once they finish school. It’s a bridge, and that learner profile should be nationally consistent, talk across borders and showcase the very best of who students are, what they can do and what problems they want to confront,” he said.
Miller said a big challenge moving forward is the ethical considerations behind evolving technology and how it can be best used for the good of society.
“The ATAR is no longer anywhere near as applicable for university entry courses. I dare suggest it won’t be greatly valued next year when universities don’t have a great pool of overseas students coming into the country,” he said.
Miller said a part of senior students’ major project could be to present to a panel to demonstrate how they’ve grown over time in key areas such as their personal skills rather than their jobs.
“Young people can talk about themselves in terms of ‘I’m a critical thinker because…’ ‘my purpose is…’ and ‘I’ve learnt this through…’. They’re all things that can speak to people a lot more than say, a band 5 or 6 in the NSW HSC”.