An Assembly committee has called for a public inquiry into the underperformance of ACT students in the national standardised testing program known as NAPLAN, but Education Minister Yvette Berry has already ruled it out.
The report of the Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Youth Affairs Committee inquiry into standardised testing in the ACT was tabled in the Assembly today after it received 12 submissions and heard six days of evidence in September and October last year.
The inquiry was launched after doubts about the ACT’s school performance were raised in successive reports including those of the Auditor-General and the ANU School of Law’s Professor Andrew Macintosh and Debra Wilkinson, who found that when compared with schools of similar socio-economic background in other jurisdictions, there was systemic underperformance in government primary and high schools in NAPLAN over the period 2012-2016, particularly at the high school level in writing and numeracy.
They found there was also reasonably widespread underperformance in non-government schools, mostly in high schools and in numeracy and to a lesser extent, writing.
Education Minister Yvette Berry has defended ACT education standards but has been a strong critic of standardised testing and NAPLAN in particular, calling for it to be scrapped.
Her spokesperson said the Government did not support another public inquiry.
“There is more to measuring the quality of school education than performance on a test at a point in time,” the spokesperson said.
“The committee’s terms of reference for the conduct of this inquiry included consideration of the ACT’s performance in standardised testing so it is unclear what the committee hopes to achieve in seeking a second public inquiry.”
Opposition spokesperson Elizabeth Lee has said the Government has refused to address its education policy failures and do anything about them, consistently calling for an independent inquiry.
Ms Lee said today she backed the committee’s findings and the call for a public inquiry. She said the report showed that many of the criticisms of NAPLAN and other standardised testing by the Education Minister were neither accurate nor supported by research.
“Evidence that was put to the committee from a range of experts highlighted the important role of standardised testing in schools when data is used appropriately,” Ms Lee said.
“Without NAPLAN and other standardised tests, Canberra parents, teachers and decision makers would not know how our students are progressing and where support is needed.
“The warnings and affirmations by experts on academic performance and standardised testing should be carefully considered by the Education Minister.”
She said it was about ensuring that all the information from standardised testing including NAPLAN was used appropriately and for the purpose for which it was established.
“We have seen no less than four or five independent experts who have raised concerns about how ACT students are performing, and more importantly and alarmingly the trend we have seen in the past few years, when you see that you have to start asking the question what is going on here and that is why we have pushing for a public inquiry into this issue. We need to get to the bottom of it,” Ms Lee said.
The committee report found that standardised testing, including NAPLAN, was a valuable diagnostic tool when used appropriately, and called for a public inquiry, in collaboration with the government and non-government school sectors, into the causes of NAPLAN underperformance in the ACT.
The report makes 20 recommendations including the commissioning of research into why some states are doing better than others and why the ACT appears to be falling behind on a like-for-like basis, and more information on teaching effectiveness to better understand the links between government policy, what teachers do in the classroom, and student progress.
It says the Minister should advocate for an independent and comprehensive review of NAPLAN that would consider what appropriate performance benchmarks are, assess the impact of testing on students and schools, and how data and results are being used.
The report also notes concerns about so-called teaching to the test, recommending the Directorate identify what NAPLAN practice testing is occurring in ACT schools and limit student preparation to familiarisation with the testing methodology and environment.
The report acknowledges student anxiety about testing, recommending parents be fully informed about its intent and that support and counselling to affected students be continued.
The committee found understanding the data remained an issue and recommended teachers be trained to better analyse and make use of the data, while noting that the delivery of results was not fast enough, calling for the release of the report that was due in December 2018.
It also believes alternatives to NAPLAN be explored such as sampling, as well as reviewing the A to E grading system and looking at alternative teaching methods.