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Rethinking NAPLAN: Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic

An interview with Sarah Duggan in EducationHQPublished Sept 10, 2020

Professor Pasi Sahlberg likens the new ANSA proposal – the latest NAPLAN reform being pushed by NSW, the ACT, Victoria and Queensland – as akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“You know, most people know that this is not the right way to go and that there’s something bad waiting ahead,” the deputy director and research director of the Gonski Institute for Education says. 

Conservative window dressing that falls short of acknowledging the 21st century assessment models now fit for Australia’s advanced education system is how Sahlberg sees the recommendations put forward in the review, which argues the NAPLAN testing regime should continue – but revamped and rebranded as The Australian National Standardised Assessment (ANSA).

Among the key differences between the proposed ANSA test and NAPLAN would be a new assessment of critical and creative thinking in STEM and “substantial” changes to the writing assessment.

A long-time advocate for sample-based testing, Sahlberg is disappointed the review, led by Emeritus Professor Barry McGaw, Emeritus Professor Bill Louden and Professor Claire Wyatt-Smith, actually suggests increasing the scope of NAPLAN, which he says essentially would equate to more standardised testing and not less.

“So for me, it’s a very conservative (review). Although it’s detailed and well done, it’s trying to do the wrong thing just a little bit righter, which I think is not very successful…”

“Simply the fact that, according to this proposal, there will be more standardised testing (in that) more subjects will be tested, there will be even more of these issues (like) teaching to the test and corruption and many others that we see…” Sahlberg warns.

The expert says that the review’s conformist cling to standardised testing becomes even more incredulous in the current context.

“Particularly now, when we are going through the biggest disruption to education that we have ever had…everything is changing, including the purpose of education or schooling, and now (we’re) facing a set of ideas that come from the past,” Sahlberg says.  

One of the glaring “downsides” of the review, according to the expert, is that it failed to adequately explain in its online survey what sample-based testing would look like.

Instead, the review rejected calls for a sample-based test, arguing that moving away from testing all students would lessen schools’ performance accountability and that valuable student-level data would be lost.

This is simply not the case, Sahlberg says.

“Most parents may think that if we have a sample-based national assessment that they would be completely without information about how their own children do in a school, or we would not be able to identify those schools and regions and communities where things are not going well, and this is completely wrong.”

Sahlberg points towards countries like the United States and Finland, where sample-based assessments are used to gauge student and school progress.

 “So I think that this was already decided in advance,” he concludes.

“That’s my view, (they decided) that a sample-based assessment system is just not an option. And of course, this is something that particular lobby groups and interest groups here are very strongly against, because they need it for their own election purposes to make sure that  parents have the information so they can opt out from some schools and apply to other schools.”

As for Education Minister Dan Tehan, Sahlberg said that with this latest review of NAPLAN, he can “continue to sleep his nights peacefully”.

“[With] this old industrial mindset that people have, this is the easiest way to explain to most people who are voting citizens, that ‘we are measuring things’…

“It’s much easier for politicians to say … that they are responsible for the measurement than for example, saying that ‘this measurement is done primarily by the teaching profession.'”

Sahlberg has another bone to pick with the ANSA proposal. 

“There’s no mention in this review and work on using standardised assessments for enhancing equity here in Australia – that is a number one issue,” he says.

“The census-based assessments that they are proposing here cannot really be designed in a way that would be useful, for example, in understanding better the relationship between students’ achievement in these tests and their socioeconomic background.

“That would be critically important to better understand the dynamics of the inequities and inequalities here…”