Global education lessons: Australia teaches to test – a better test
As the US moves to the Common Core, it might well look to Australia's victories with testing that promotes effective learning. It hasn't been controversy-free, but the nation is coming to terms with assessment.
Sydney, Australia; and New york
Alice Leung has been teaching science in the New South Wales public school system for six years, mostly trying to figure out ways to make herself redundant. "In the end," Ms. Leung believes, "good teachers build up the students so that they can be independent learners and eventually don't need you."Skip to next paragraph
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For that to happen, Leung needs to know the strengths and weakness of her students, a diverse group of seventh- through 12th-graders at Merrylands High School in Sydney's western suburbs. For this, she relies on a battery of techniques, ranging from quizzes designed to tell her students' starting point to mind-mapping exercises, games, brainstorming sessions, traditional tests, and tasks on online platforms.
Leung's classroom exemplifies a trend earning Australia accolades from international education experts: testing that promotes effective learning and teaching. This ranges from classroom tests like Leung's to certification tests administered at a statewide level. Here, as in the United States, teachers may find themselves teaching to such external tests; the difference is that the quality of those assessments is much higher than the multiple-choice format the US favors.
Ironically, Australia has recently introduced an additional national layer of assessments with the nationwide standardized testing and curricula that critics worry is a step toward a failed US model.
As the US 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.
Introduced in 2008, Australia's National Assessment Program – or NAPLAN – 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. In 2009, the nation's mean scores on the tests ranked the country 9th in reading, 10th in science, and 15th in math (contrasted with the US rankings of 14th, 20th, and 30th, respectively). Federal policymakers hope NAPLAN will raise these scores further, while some critics refer to NAPLAN as "napalm.''