One-size-fits-all is past its NAPLAN use-by date
Published by Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 5 August
Every year, NAPLAN tests provide a snapshot of how students are performing in Australian schools. The scores shed light on what students know, and how this varies across Australia. Changes over time allow us to see whether performance has improved or stagnated among schools and individual students.
But we don’t want this information for the sake of interest. We want it to lead to better learning.
Unfortunately, preliminary results for 2015 don’t bring a lot to cheer for most states.
Since the first NAPLAN tests in 2008, results in Queensland and Western Australia have improved for most year levels and most subjects. Yet the only areas of substantial improvement are in reading and grammar in year 3 in Queensland – no doubt helped by the introduction of a prep year in 2007. In other states, the only glimpses of improvement are in year 3 reading and year 5 numeracy. The percentage of year 9 students who meet minimum standards has stayed largely static.
The big story from the 2015 NAPLAN results is how little has changed. This is troubling. It shows Australia has failed to improve learning, despite many years of concerted effort. International PISA tests show that several other countries are doing a better job. One in five of our 15-year-olds fall short of PISA’s minimum standard in maths, compared to only 9 per cent in the top 5 systems. Among our strongest students, only 15 per cent of our students reach the highest levels, compared to 40 per cent in the top systems.
It is easy to analyse NAPLAN results, much harder to improve them. You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it. NAPLAN data can’t tell governments what to do next.
If NAPLAN results are to improve, we need to improve student learning. Tinkering with school autonomy or lifting community engagement, for example, will do nothing unless it improves student learning.
Grattan Institute’s latest report, Targeted Teaching, shows that the most effective way to improve learning in the classroom is to target teaching to every student. This is hard work: teachers must be able to assess what each student knows now, target their teaching to what they are ready to learn next, and track each student’s progress over time.
Targeted teaching represents a significant change from business as usual in many classrooms, particularly in secondary schools. But as the NAPLAN results make clear, business as usual is not producing the outcomes we want.
Knowing where each student is starting from is the critical first step. NAPLAN results can help but they are not available until students are well into their fourth year of school. Teachers need more frequent and detailed assessments of learning to build an accurate picture for each student. Then they need to be able to use the data to work out how to target their teaching, based on where the student is at now.
The typical classroom has a widespread of achievement – five to eight year levels between the strongest and weakest students, on average. In a year 7 maths class, for example, there may be students working at a year 1 level while others have mastered concepts from year 8.
This spread makes it imperative to move beyond a one-size-fits-all model, in which the same year-level curriculum is covered regardless of whether it makes sense for each student. Unfortunately, this model is all too common in many schools.
Neither teachers nor schools can make these changes on their own. Governments must provide guidance and support, including the time, tools and training that teachers and schools need to adjust their approach.
Some schools are making targeted teaching a reality. In NSW, these efforts have been supported by the government’s Early Action for Success program in disadvantaged primary schools as well as by the Diocese of Parramatta in its primary and secondary schools. These initiatives help teachers to collect accurate data on each student’s learning and target their teaching in response.
Change will take time, and sustained effort. A new approach to teaching the five-year-olds who start school in 2016 won’t show up in year 3 NAPLAN results until 2019 or in year 9 results until 2025. We do know that if we keep doing the same things, we are likely to get the same outcomes. For the sake of our children, we need a better approach.