Australia’s Testing Debate Could Provide Answers for the US

As the debate over testing — how much, how often, and why — continues worldwide, Australia is earning accolades from international education experts for testing standards that promote effective learning and teaching. This ranges from classroom tests to certification tests administered at a statewide level, according to John Zubrzycki and Lee Lawrence of The Christian Science Monitor, who notes that the US is paying attention:

As the United States prepares to roll out testing pegged to the new Common Core State Standards, it behooves American educators to listen in on Australian debate pitting well-established state exams against newer federal tests.

Recently, Australia has introduced an additional national layer of assessments with the nationwide standardized testing and curricula. According to critics, that's a step toward a failed U.S. model.

Australia's National Assessment Program (NAPLAN) was introduced in 2008 and tests literacy and numeracy skills through multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Students in Grades 3, 5, 7, and 9 are required to take it, and the results for individual school performance are published on My School, a public website.

Critics argue that the content is too narrow and the stakes too high. Since NAPLAN scores appear as the only measure of school and teacher performance, they say, teaching to this test has taken precedence over education strategies that encourage exploration, creative thinking, and analysis. They also point out that NAPLAN has not been around long enough to take credit for Australia's solid performance on Program for International Student Assessment tests. Federal policymakers hope NAPLAN will raise these scores further, while some critics refer to NAPLAN as "napalm."

Liliana Mularczyk, principal of Merrylands and president of the NSW Secondary Principals' Council said that NAPLAN shows only a tiny sliver of a student's ability. "You need to look at the whole person's learning level at different times, not just based on 40 questions."

Mularczyk noted that assessment, like the Australian high school certification exams that students in most states take at the conclusion of Grade 12, measure a range of skills, abilities, and knowledge. These exams are pegged to standards and curricula, which are formulated at the state level through an extensive and collaborative process that involves teachers, school administrators, and education experts.

When they sit for these state exams, students choose among 20 to 30 subjects, and "there are different approaches for different subjects," says Kevin Donnelly, a retired English teacher and founder of Education Standards Institute, a Melbourne think tank. "Here in Victoria," he explains, "some science exams might have a section with short answers and multiple choice," but most of the subjects require students to write essays. In the case of dance or music, they must perform; for visual arts they submit a portfolio.

Students are also required to present a portfolio of research projects, science experiments, and in-school assessments that are considered alongside the exam results. This certification process, in many ways, resembles a cross between the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement.

In radical contrast to the U.S., the state exams are then made available – students turn in their answers, but can leave clutching the sheet of questions. Also, anyone can access descriptions of the information and analysis expected in each answer, the grading guidelines, as well as sample answers and how these are ranked. This helps teachers understand the degree of critical thinking, factual knowledge, and communication skills their students need to succeed.

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