Some musings about NAPLAN

Last week, students across Australia in Years Three, Five, Seven and Nine were required to sit the annual NAPLAN testing. NAPLAN is ostensibly inflicted upon students to assess their growth over the eighteen months since their previous NAPLAN (or to serve as a benchmark if it is the student’s first NAPLAN). This testing process has a significant number of flaws and causes stress, anxiety and frustration, amongst students and parents, but also amongst some teachers. This year was my first involvement with NAPLAN, as while I am teaching a combined Year Five and Six class this year, last year I was employed in an RFF capacity and had only been in that role for a few weeks when NAPLAN arrived, and thus felt only a minimal impact as a result.

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An example of a note sent home by a teacher to reduce stress in students. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/j6u8uoe on 16 May 2016

 

I remember sitting the Basic Skills Test in Year Five sometime in the early 1990s (though I have no recollection of sitting it in Year Three), and my recollections of it was that it was a low-key test, where my parents received a booklet which talked about grade-level expectations, and indicated where my results across the various tests sat in relation to my peers at my school, and then either across the state or across the country, I cannot recall which. My teacher, Mr. Davies, who is one of the reasons I entered the teaching profession simply told us that we had to sit this test to assess our progress and to just give it our best effort. Mr. Davies was a fantastic teacher, and as far as we knew, the test had little importance beyond what it told him about our results. We sat the test, I rushed through it as I always did (and still do) with multiple choice tests, and then went outside and read a book while I waited for my classmates to finish. Mum and Dad received the results sometime later, we chatted about them, Mum asked if I rushed through the test (cue the head hang, “Yes Mum, sorry, I just wanted to read my book”) and life moved on.

I do not doubt that there was more to it than that, however, from my perspective at that time, as a ten-year-old boy, was that it was just something we had to do, but not something that was particularly important. Things have changed, however, and not for the good. My students seemed to do ok. I had two or three students who were a little anxious, but otherwise, they did not seem overly concerned. There were, however, students across the Central Coast, from conversations with other teachers, who could not cope and actually made themselves sick, including one student in Year Three. Additionally, there were students who would ordinarily write a high-quality narrative, with excellent character development, a complex plot twist, and a clever resolution, who simply froze because of how little time they were given.

I do not know what approach other teachers took in the lead up to NAPLAN, whether much preparation was in class, or set at home; nor do I know how much preparation my students’ put in outside of school, of their own volition (or at the behest of their parents). Personally, I sat down on Monday afternoon to talk to them about it for the first time (I had studiously avoided mentioning NAPLAN) at any point prior to that), and the reaction was immediate. Some students I could tell were worried about it, some were ambivalent, and some were annoyed that they had to complete them due to the time they took out of class. My Year Six students were ecstatic, as they would be spending the time undertaking Peer Support Training with another teacher and myself.

I talked to them about NAPLAN for a little while, telling them about my own experience with the Basic Skills Test, and then made it very clear that as far as I was not worried about their NAPLAN results, as long as they put in their best effort. I reminded them of the formative testing in literacy and numeracy that we had completed at the beginning of the year, and that we would be completing those assessments at the end of this term and again at the end of Term Four, and that I was focused on the growth they showed across the three iterations of those tests. I reminded them that NAPLAN did not know or care whether they had slept well the previous night, or had eaten breakfast or not, or are more athletically inclined, or anything else, other than the results that they put on their paper and submitted for NAPLAN.

We talked about the way they get feedback on their learning outputs in class, through the marking systems we use, or through one to one conversation during class time and that I do not get to see what they write and so cannot give them feedback, or know how they went, other than the number which is given for each test result. I could see some of the tension leaving some of my students, and my Year Six students were helpful as well, talking about their experiences and that it was not as hard or as stressful as they thought it would be.

I have a great group of students.

Whether or not we like NAPLAN, it is here, and it is here to stay, though I do not doubt it will evolve over time into something else (such as the move to digital completion which has been discussed for some time). There is a body of research about the impact that it has across the education sector and in the current education environment, where we continually here about the fourth-grade slump and the drop in results across PISA and TIMMS, short-sighted politicians are looking for a quick fix that will get them votes at the next election. There is talk about planning for the future, but I sincerely doubt that it actually means anything, given the way that politicians lie in order to get the support they need.

Students across the country have teachers who know and understand that NAPLAN is relatively meaningless, a single snapshot in time which takes twelve weeks to develop, and where the original negative (student submissions) are not available for checking. NAPLAN is a broken and flawed tool which causes stress and anxiety in students and teachers and from anecdotal reports, some parents far above what it provides in return. I await the result of this year’s NAPLAN test for my students, which will mean little as the text-type for the writing test was a different text-type to what they were required to write when they were in Year Three, making the data comparison invalid from every point of view I can think of.

What was your experience with NAPLAN this year? How did you, your students and your students’ parents cope? Do you prepare your students with pre-testing or give them a speech similar to what I gave to my students? Is your school one in which NAPLAN is a highly important test, or is it largely disregarded? I would appreciate hearing about  your experiences with NAPLAN and the strategies you employ in your context to survive the infliction of NAPLAN each year. As always, thank you for reading.

Education Nation | An Interview with Professor Masters

“There are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.”
– Professor Geoff Masters. E-Mail correspondence, 2016

Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) in June is through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.

All interpretations of Professor Masters’ views are my own and any misinterpretation also mine. The Interview with Professor Masters has been included for the sake of transparency.

After I had accepted the invitation to attend Education Nation in order to write a series of review articles about the event, I asked if it would be possible to conduct a series of pre-conference interviews via e-mail with some of the speakers. I was privileged to have been granted an e-mail interview with Professor Geoff Masters AO, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) as well as head of ACER’s Centre for Assessment Reform and Innovation.

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Professor Geoff Masters. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/h2czpd6 on 6th March 2016

In developing the questions for Professor Masters, I felt that it would be remiss of me to not take advantage of the opportunity to ask his opinions about statements by Professor John Hattie in April 2015, where Professor Hattie indicated that he felt classroom teachers should leave education researcher to trained researchers. I recall there being quite the uproar on social media as a result of Professor Hattie’s remarks, with a great number of educators commenting that there is no reason they cannot engage with research.

Professor Masters’ view is that it is unreasonable to expect teachers to be both highly trained and effective educators; and highly trained and effective educational researchers. It is reasonable, however, to expect teachers to be informed users of research evidence; evidence which should be a consideration for teachers when engaging in the informal research process of evaluative reflection upon their pedagogical practice.

The title of the article in which Profess Hattie’s statement was published was certainly clickbait and as with most instances of clickbait, upon reading further, the statements were not as provocative as at first glance. Indeed, Professor Masters’ response to this question implies that Hattie’s sentiment that teachers should leave the research to the researchers is reasonable. Indeed, when you read further in the article, where Professor Hattie is reported as also having said “I want to put the emphasis on teachers as evaluators of their impact. Be skilled at that,” I find it difficult to disagree.

I cannot speak to the level of training that other classroom teachers have received in research. Personally, having only received an introduction to educational research through the Honours program I completed as part of my initial teacher education (ITE) (delivered by Dr. Nicole Mockler), I do not feel that I would be able to put together a large-scale strong and rigorous research project on my own, whilst also managing the day-to-day requirements of teaching and evaluating the effectiveness of my practices. That said, I do feel that I have had enough training through the Honours program to enable me to read and utilise the outcomes of research to inform my reflections, or to work with a researcher to conduct more formal research.

Professor Masters further noted that high levels of training and proficiency are required for certain types of research, which dovetails neatly with Professor Hattie’s comment that “[r]esearching is a particular skill. Some of us took years to gain that skill.” I do not have years to invest in mastering the skills to become proficient with rigorous, high-quality formalised research. I would prefer, at this point in my career, to invest that time in developing my pedagogical practice. In that frame of reference, leave the research to the researcher is not, in my opinion, as provocative a sentiment as it first sounds.

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Professor Hattie. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/z4e2ryr on 6th March 2016

During the last four years in various staffrooms and study sessions with my colleague pre-service teachers, I have encountered a variety of opinions regarding the relationship and relevance that research has to classroom teachers. Whilst there are pockets of teachers who see the value in the relationship, by and large, educational research appears to be seen as irrelevant. Professor Masters stated that too often pedagogical practice is shaped by beliefs about what should work in the classroom and beliefs shaped by fads and fashions of the day (Greg Ashman has written about various fads and fashions in education including here, here, here and here). Additionally, I have heard the “it worked when I was in school/first started teaching/we did it this way in the 70s and 80s”  refrain regularly, with its unstated implication that it will still work.

To improve the quality of classroom teaching, and by extension, the learning outcomes for students, Professor Masters asserts that evidence-based pedagogical practices should be implemented; that is, those pedagogies which have been demonstrated through research and experience to be effective in improving students’ learning outcomes and engagement. The relationship between educational research and classroom teaching is one of sharing, with Professor Masters commenting that “[p]rofessions are defined largely by a shared knowledge base. Educational research is playing an essential role in building that knowledge base.”

It is interesting to note that there is a growing community of educators on various forms of social media sharing with their practices, both the successes and the failures, with each other, and it will be interesting to see what role the online Professional Learning Networks play in contributing to educational research in the future, both as a source of information and participants, and as a vehicle for dissemination.

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Retrieved from tinyurl.com/j8vcs2p on 6th May 2016

I asked Professor Masters what his thoughts were on what stood in the way of Australian education and the heights of PISA and TIMMS testing results that seem to be the benchmark by which educational success is judged. I did so with reference to the ITE programs in Finland and the well-publicised reign of Finland at the top of the table in regards to PISA and TIMMS. Professor Masters’ response was relatively simple. High-performing countries, such as Finland and Singapore have raised the status of teachers.

Professor Masters noted that there are a number of high-performing countries who draw their teachers from the upper echelons of secondary education, typically starting with the top thirty percent and some drawing only from the top ten percent, making teaching in those countries, a highly respected and sought after career. This is not the case in Australia, where the required Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) is quite low, as highlighted in this article from May 2015 which indicates that almost a third of all pre-service teachers achieved an ATAR of less than sixty. That demonstrates the low respect held for teaching compared with some of the ATARs listed in this article from January 2014, indicating that a to enter a Bachelor of Health Science/Master of Physiotherapy degree at the University of Western Sydney required an ATAR of 99.95, or the combined law degrees at the University of Sydney and the University of NSW, both with minimum ATARs of 99.70.

The school of thought that simply increasing the minimum required ATAR to enter an ITE program will improve the quality of teachers is not necessarily true. This article from October 2015 indicates that only a small percentage of pre-service teachers enter their ITE immediately upon completion of their secondary education. However, I do not believe that Professor Masters is advocating such a simplistic solution. His comment that “…teaching is a highly respected and sought after career and these countries have succeeded in making teaching attractive to their brightest and best schools leavers…” (emphasis mine) indicates to me that it should be merely one component of the admission process.

Professor Masters observed that in teaching in Australia is trending in the other direction to high-performing countries, becoming less attractive, an opinion I agree with. Personally, I am finding that time I would spend planning and preparing for a lesson is being taken up by mandatory training modules which provide no actual training, or on paperwork which is needed for the sake of bureaucracy. I, like many other teachers around the world, am struggling to balance work and family and am left feeling guilty for not spending time with my family. Perversely, I also find myself feeling guilty for not spending the time I want on marking and writing feedback, or on planning and resourcing a lesson, (often with things from my own home or which we have purchased with our own money).

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One of many memes which can be found on the internet with a similar sentiment. Retrieved from tinyurl.com/hgmax9j on 6th May 2016

The debate about how to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a profession is an old and ongoing one, and I look forward to hearing it discussed during Education Nation. When asked for his view on how the issue could be resolved, Professor Masters pointed out that it would require a series of deliberate policy decisions on a range of issues including teacher salaries, resourcing, and autonomy; as well as the number of admissions into ITE programs. Professor Masters noted that the countries which appear at the top of the international testing results, including Finland, limit the number of pre-service teachers each year. This article indicates that only one in ten applicants is successful in gaining entry into a Finnish ITE program.

There are also come clear benefits to restricting the number of entrants to ITE programs. You are also restricting the number of graduates, thereby helping to prevent what has happened here in Australia, where there is a glut of teachers who are unable to gain permanent employment due to the high number of graduates each year. Professor Masters’ final point was that an important factor in the perception of teaching is the academic rigour of the ITE program itself. I have written previously about my own ITE (part one can be found here), and I do believe that ITE programs, in general, can be improved, and look forward to hearing about that topic at Education Nation.

NAPLAN, which commences next Tuesday for Year Three, Five, Seven and Nine students Australia-wide, is an incredibly high-stakes testing process which has the potential to cause great anxiety and consternation amongst students, parents, teachers and policy-makers, and which invariably receives a great deal of attention in the media. When asked about why he thought NAPLAN moved from being a low-stakes test to what it is now, Professor Masters wrote that it is part of a deliberate strategy to improve performances through incentives.

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These incentives appear to use the carrot and stick method, with some financial rewards for school improvement or, alternatively, the threat of intervention and sanction for poor performance, and yet, the international experience has demonstrated that school behaviour is changed when the stakes attached to tests are increased. This is shown by the annual breaches that occur during the administering NAPLAN tests, including cheating and inappropriate assistance by some teachers, and the way in which many schools prepare their students for NAPLAN, as indicated in this article. Further to this, the public release of NAPLAN allows parents to compare schools and can result in some schools losing students as parents opt to send their child to seemingly ‘better’ schools.

Professor Masters commented that high-quality tests are an important component of education, providing diagnostic data around topics or concepts that require attention, monitoring improvement over time and evaluating the effectiveness and impact of programs and interventions. The widely used Progressive Achievement Test (PAT) is an example of the kind of test that can be an invaluable part of a teacher’s toolkit.

I do agree with Professor Masters about the value of testing. At the beginning of this year, Stage Three students in my school all completed a series of diagnostic tests across reading, spelling, and mathematics. That data was invaluable in identifying those students who need additional assistance in particular areas, and plays a role in developing Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for some students, and also for discussions with parents about the student’s results and progress throughout the year. It will also play an important role in quantifying students’ growth across the year when those tests are re-administered at various points throughout the year.

My final question to Professor Masters was his advice to new teachers as they enter their classrooms pressured to ensure that their students to achieve high NAPLAN results. He responded that “[t]here are few things as important in schools as providing all students with sound foundations in literacy and numeracy.” Professor Masters’ belief that the goal should be to improve our students’ literacy and numeracy levels, and that if we do raise the NAPLAN results, it should be as a result of improved literacy and numeracy levels. The problem, he pointed out, is that NAPLAN scores can be increased in ways that do not lead to better literacy and numeracy levels.

I am grateful to Professor Masters for his time and willingness to engage in the interview process. I very much look forward to hearing him speak at Education Nation, where he is speaking to the title Addressing the five key challenges in school education that matter to you on day one. Professor Masters will also be joining Dennis Yarrington, Dr. Kenneth Wiltshire and Lila Mularczyk for a panel discussion about Student Testing on day two. If you have not yet registered for Education Nation, I would encourage you to do so by clicking here.

As always, my thanks for reading, particularly given the length of this article. Please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or feedback via the comments section below or on Twitter.

Student Mobility, Wellbeing and Academic Results

“Mobility can be really difficult for children and can often interrupt their learning, so it is important that we focus not only on their education but also their well-being…”
– Lila Mularczyk, President of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, as reported here.

In early March of this year, I stumbled upon an ongoing Twitter conversation (storified here) about student mobility and its impacts on student learning that stemmed from this article published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The author, Alex Smith (@alexsmithSMH), wrote an article with the summary of “Students who change schools several times do worse in NAPLAN than their peers and are more likely to drop out of school” and the ensuing Twitter conversation made for interesting reading, with the opening tweet in the conversation being this:

I agree with Alice, in that the reasons behind why students move schools are typically completely out of the realm of influence for schools and teachers, yet the impression that is left after reading the article, for myself at least, and I suspect some others in the conversation, is that the schools are to blame. It is an interesting article to read, and the statistics (based on enrolment data from 2008-2014) are not that surprising, in many ways.

  • Approximately fifty-four thousand students (representing approximately seven percent of the total student population) in NSW alone change schools each year.
  • Just over half of those moves occur during the school year, as opposed to during the holidays.
  • One in four students changes schools at least once during their school lives.
  • Around one in twenty change schools four or more times during their school lives.
  • Based on NAPLAN data, students who change schools three or more times between Kindergarten and Year Three typically return reading results around eighty points lower than students who do not move schools.

The reasons behind why students move schools are myriad, and are, indeed, often outside the sphere of influence of teachers or schools. Speaking personally, I attended six different schools (East Tamworth PS, South Tamworth PS, Orana Heights PS (Dubbo), Inverell PS, West Tamworth PS, Tamworth HS) in three towns (Tamworth, Dubbo, Inverell and back to Tamworth. I wrote five towns in my Tweet, however, I am not sure where I managed to pull five from). The moves, for my family, were mostly related to my father’s occupation, where he would be transferred from one office to another, across towns. The moves within the towns were typically related to the fact that we were renting and the house would be sold, or we needed to move to a bigger house as my siblings were born and we then grew up and needed more space.

There are so many other reasons for student mobility, as alluded to in the above tweet, more than can be covered in this article, but there is no way that any school or teacher would have been able to influence my mobility as a student. There are steps that can be taken by schools and teachers to help students settle into a new school, however, and that was the focus of the majority of the conversation.

Alice’s above Tweet provides an interesting insight into the importance attached to developing strong relationships with students from refugee backgrounds. The tweet implies that developing strong relationships, including characteristics such as mutual trust and respect,  plays a key role in the student’s ability to integration into the school community, form social bonds, and see academic success.

I do not believe I would hear too many opposing voices if I put forward the notion that those ideals form a key part of any teacher-student relationship, and that any student who joins a class after the start of the school year will require assistance. My recollections of changing schools during the year are rather hazy due to the passing of time, however, I do not recall any particular teacher who spent time with me to determine what gaps I had in my knowledge based on what the class I was joining had already covered.

I managed, I completed my HSC (poorly), found myself a job and worked for ten years before returning to undertake my initial teacher education (which I completed with far superior results in comparison to my HSC). I feel confident in saying that any teacher would tell that NAPLAN does not represent the students in their classroom accurately, that Student A gets incredibly anxious with time pressures, that student B struggles to articulate their thoughts in writing, or that Student C is living with a messy divorce, or came to school without having eaten that morning any one of a dozen other emotional, psychological or wellbeing issues that teachers see in their students each day.

The point was raised that teachers invest time and effort and heart in their students who need it, in order to support them, bring them up and the growth that is achieved, across a range of domains can be immense, yet at the same time they are being questioned about NAPLAN or HSC results.

I have a few students in my class who are new to the school, and I am fortunate that my class is very welcoming and supportive (the whole school is incredibly supportive of each other in general, to be honest) and I feel confident that if a student transferred tomorrow, that they would be made to feel welcome by their new classmates, and that myself and my teaching partner, Mrs. W, would also be able to support them and build a positive relationship with them as we have with our other students.

The questions implied in the original newspaper article, or what I see as the questions being implied, is what can be done to better support students and the families who are considered mobile vis-a-vis changing schools after the commencement of the school year, and beyond that, is reducing the need for families to change schools, something that can be impacted?

I would be very curious to hear your thoughts on this complex issue and the variety of factors that play into it.

NAPLAN (and Disruptions) ahoy!

“There’s a mindset of flexibility and adaptability that comes with us. We don’t mind hardship. We don’t mind somebody saying, ‘Go in and do this nasty job.’ Whatever the job is, we can do it. That’s why the nation has a Marine Corps.”
-Attributed to James F. Amos

The above quote may have come from someone talking to the context of the United States Marine Corp, but it applies equally to the teaching profession and the jobs that teachers do. This week, all year three and five students, and their teachers are undertaking the annual NAPLAN assessment. Wherever you sit in regards to the NAPLAN Debate, it has to be acknowledged that NAPLAN causes a large level of disruption to the whole school community, and for some students, is a highly stressful experience.

Yesterday saw two sessions of NAPLAN testing, and for me, personally, it was the cause of no small amount of frustration. My first class was unaffected, as it was a kindergarten class, however that was only the start of things. After the first half hour with the kindergarten class, I proceeded to a Year three and four composite class. I had been advised that morning that that particular class would consist of only the year fours from it and another class with the years threes from the two classes sitting NAPLAN in the same room. That is okay, I thought to myself, I can work with the year fours first, and then the year three students, as two separate blocks of students, cover the material needed and not double up.

Unfortunately, that didn’t work. When the session was finished, and I was packing up, I was told that the NAPLAN session had not yet finished and they needed more time, which was not really an issue, as I simply took my RFF (release from face to face) session then, and came back after that, expecting to have the combined cohort of year three students.

Wrong. I had the entirety of the class, both the year three, and the year four students I had previously had that morning. My initial thought was that this was a good opportunity to have the year four students cement their own knowledge, by peer tutoring the year three students on the skills I had just taught them. I did not have enough year four students for this to work properly, and then lost further year four students to errands that needed to be done.

At this point I decided that it was not working, and changed what I was doing with the students, and worked through some different topics using my store of videos, which allowed me to work through some different areas of learning with the class.

Today has been an even bigger mish-mash. My first session was as normal, with a year four class, I lost my entire second session due to NAPLAN, and then had technical issues with my third session. I was using myedapp.com with a year five and six composite class, which was also a BYODD class using iPads. I had created two quests that I wanted the students to undertake, the first being a fundamental computer skills quest, and the second a book study. The computer skills course consisted of a series of short videos, each covering one skill, with formative assessment throughout.

Unfortunately, the videos were not working, the upload file (for students) was only allowing photos or videos for the students, and when I tried to upload a video in place of the link, that also would not work. A quick message to the myEdapp team via their in-app contact button resulted in a phone call from Yohan, the CEO a few minutes later, for a quick conversation to let me know what the issues were, while I was live in the room, which was hugely helpful.

I have another year five and six composite class this afternoon, and I will be doing similar skills, however will be utilising the school bank of laptops, which unfortunately only have Internet Explorer loaded, a browser that myEdapp does not support. This means that as a workaround, I will be showing the videos on the class projector/interactive whiteboard, and we will be discussing the skills. This will not be as engaging for the students, however, I will be able to intersperse this with some practical hands on activities as well.

As always, thank you for reading, and I would like to hear from you as to how you have been impacted by NAPLAN this year, and how you are working around it.