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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.

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Liliana Mularczyk, principal of Merrylands and president of the NSW Secondary Principals' Council, expresses a less incendiary but no less critical view: "What you get from NAPLAN is 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."

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By contrast, she and others point out, assessments 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, like the examinations themselves, 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 also present a portfolio of research projects, science experiments, and in-school assessments that are considered alongside the exam results.

In many ways, this certification process resembles a cross between the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement. Like them, it includes an elaborate training and supervision system that ensures consistency in exam grading. This, in turn, steeps participating teachers – most at some point take part – in the state's standards and curriculum choices. This spills over into the classroom, helping to align teachers' approach to grading throughout the year, according to outside observers.

In radical contrast to the US, 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.

Leung, for example, uploads selections of past exams onto Edmodo, an online platform that allows her to collect data on what her students know and what gaps she needs to fill. It also allows students, with Leung's guidance, to give each other feedback as they would in a workshop.

Learning to evaluate others' work ultimately teaches them to look at their own work critically, bringing Leung one step closer to her goal of one day releasing students from her classroom with the skills to embark on a lifetime of learning.


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