NAPLAN isn’t perfect, but its high time ACT Minister for Education Yvette Berry and directorate officials admit there is something not quite right about school performance in the ACT.
There are always caveats around standardised testing, and Ms Berry is right to argue it only captures student performance at one particular time, but the trends seem clear: standards are slipping and the disadvantage gap is growing.
When the ACT’s obvious socioeconomic edge is taken into account, performance is even worse.
A jurisdiction such as the ACT – probably the most highly educated and paid in the country – should be on top of the national ladder.
NAPLAN may not be the complete picture, but the data can be a useful guide and it suggests something is missing in the ACT’s classrooms.
Ms Berry will argue that ACT public schools are already rolling out programs to boost literacy and numeracy, we have the best teachers in the country, and the ACT’s education strategy is on track.
A staunch defender of ACT public schools and its teachers, Ms Berry continues to have faith while the evidence piles up that too many kids are not learning to read, write and do their sums.
‘Back to basics’ is a glib catchphrase that suggests some sort of educational golden age so a return to 1950s chalk and talk is no answer.
But it does seem that rudimentary skills and how to teach them are lacking, or being overwhelmed by an emphasis on self-directed, inquiry-based learning, free expression and the development of critical thinking.
And for all the assignments – often set at too young an age to be useful and the bane of parents – there appears to be little instruction in how to write, structure or research them.
We still seem to be recovering from the abandonment of grammar, phonics and mathematical basics such as times tables and mental arithmetic, along with sequential learning, so students have to master a level before moving on to the next.
Some students just aren’t being given the tools to be successful, often in an environment that isn’t conducive to learning. Osmosis is no substitute for explicit teaching, and in some cases repetition and the development of a memory muscle is the only way to build a platform for complex learning later on.
We’re talking parts and figures of speech, sentence structure, spelling, times tables and formulae.
Technology such as calculators and premature access to the internet may be compounding these issues, undermining learning and cluttering the landscape.
The ability to be self-directed and possessing critical thinking skills are important – it’s just that without foundation skills, students won’t be as successful as they could be and some will just fall away, convinced they are failures.
It also seems the developmental stages of childhood are being ignored, with too much choice being given to students lacking the maturity to understand it.
Most parents will recognise at least some of these aspects in their children’s school experiences, and the Canberra Liberals have also raised some in their policy document.
They should not be fobbed off, or be seen as attacks on teachers, but examined and responded to.
The ACT’s NAPLAN results are not disastrous, but the Education Directorate should interrogate the data and review the present mix of its Future of Education Strategy.