Assessment is defined by Nitko and Brookhart (2011) as a “process for obtaining information used for making decisions about students, curricula, programs and schools, and educational policy” (p. 3). Assessment tools are important for both students and teachers. Assessments measure students’ learning to determine whether they are obtaining age- and grade-appropriate skills and knowledge. These tools also inform teachers about whether the lessons are helping students to achieve learning goals and whether the methods utilized are beneficial to the students.
This paper will provide an overview and critique of South Australia’s primary school assessment policies and issues surrounding assessment by reviewing performance standards, assessment equality, and moderation of assessment to improve both teaching and learning. The paper will also identify and address various stakeholders and their goals for the assessment.
In South Australia, curriculum development, content standards, and achievement standards for primary education are determined by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (NCEE Australia, n.d.). ACARA provides specific guidelines for teachers including year-by-year competency guides for students at each grade level. While individual schools manage formative student assessment, all national assessments are managed by the National Assessment Program (NAP). All students must meet the requirements set by ACARA through the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests to asses student learning in the areas of reading, writing, language conventions (such as spelling, grammar, and punctuation), and numeracy or mathematics (NCEE Australia, n.d.). The introduction of NAPLAN in 2008 was the first instance of high-stakes testing in South Australia and was designed to ensure that students were meeting benchmark performance standards (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2012). However, as will be discussed in this paper, high-stakes testing does not always effectively measure performance against standards and is often biased by cultural inequalities and teacher judgment.
The NAPLAN test occurs annually and is given to students after grades 3, 5, 7, and 9. The NAPLAN is intended to assess whether students are meeting benchmark standards in literacy and numeracy. Additional tests are given every three years to assess student learning in science, civics and citizenship, and information and communications technology (NCEE Australia, n.d.). While these tests do measure student performance, the main purpose is to evaluate school performance. Students’ scores on these tests can guide teachers and administration in teaching and curricula planning and assess whether the current methods are working to bring students to a certain level of knowledge and performance.
As a tertiary and national assessment policy, the NAPLAN has a variety of people and institutions to which it is accountable. “Educational practice is defined by its purposes, and these purposes are the outcome of processes that shape educational discourse” (Ried, 2010, p. 14). Teachers have a wide base of individuals and groups who they must address with their teaching. A range of private and public stakeholders including students, parents, educational administration, society, and national economy have various expectations for teaching and performance. On a larger scale, education must prepare young people to contribute to the economy, and communities and society expect schools to be active and productive participants in life. School organizational bodies and administration expect that lessons and curricula will be solidly based on research and proven evidence about the most effective approaches to education. They also require a rigorous inquiry into assessment issues and timely resolution of all problems. Lastly, individuals such as parents and students, expect that their schools and teachers will provide a varied and high-quality education that will eventually provide social and economic advantages and benefits (Ried, 2010).
Assessment tools such as the NAPLAN are based on performance standards that describe the level of achievement students should have at certain levels. However, the NAPLAN does not currently have official descriptors of standards, only general benchmark standards representing a baseline level of knowledge and performance which students must meet or exceed (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2012). In such standards-based assessments, the performance goals must be both transparent and available to students. In other words, students must be informed about how they are going to be graded and ranked before taking the NAPLAN test. This includes the assessment components such as sample questions, how many assessment tasks will be used, and criteria by which students will be assessed (Cumming & Maxwell, 2004).
The NAPLAN is considered a “high-stakes” test, meaning that the results are used to make important decisions about students, classroom learning, schools, and administration. Additionally, “high-stakes testing is driven by a desire to meet public accountability, demonstrate transparency, and maintain public confidence in the standards of schooling” (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2012, p. 1). This form of assessment is used to prove to the various stakeholders in education that teaching is doing what it is designed to do, and students are succeeding. Unfortunately, this often means that improvements in scores are due to teachers who teach students how to score well rather than gain deep and important knowledge (Black, 2000). Rather than helping students to learn creativity, critical thinking, and determination, teachers are helping students learn how to answer multiple-choice and short answer questions to attain strong scores and make stakeholders happy.
Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith (2012) discuss standards reform and explain that there must be a balanced relationship between curriculum, learning and assessment, and reporting standards. Teachers must display sound judgment and the ability to assess whether lesson plans and curriculum are teaching the students rather than merely teaching to the standards. In addition to the baseline standards, teachers should consider learning outcomes and indicators. By asking and understanding what students should know and be able to do as the result of any lesson and how to assess whether students have gained this knowledge, teachers can integrate learning targets and goals into curriculum development. Cumming and Maxwell (2004) suggest holding professional development seminars and groups where teachers can collaborate on curriculum development activities and see how other schools are meeting the performance standards and learning targets. By setting challenging goals for students rather than simply encouraging regurgitation of information on a test, students can begin to link their understanding with assessment tasks (Black, 2000).
In South Australia, as in any learning environment encompassing multiple cultural and ethnic groups, assessment tools run the risk of being biased or unfair to certain groups. While assessments are not necessarily purposely written to be exclusive, sometimes certain groups of students who underperform on these standardized tests are not included in the results to sway the average scores. Inclusive assessment tools must include all students with disabilities or from non-dominant cultures, and South Australia has specific guidelines for inclusivity in the assessment. The ACARA states that “construction of knowledge and skills to be addressed should involve a critical evaluation of the extent to which the choice of a particular set of knowledge and skills is likely to privilege certain groups of students and exclude others by gender, socioeconomic, cultural, or linguistic background” (Cumming & Maxwell, 2004, p. 106). Assessment must not exclude any students from results, and students with a disability or who do not speak English as a first language should not be treated as outliers in assessment findings. Despite this requirement, Elliott, Davies, and Kettler (2012) found that nearly 5% of students in Australian schools are being withdrawn. This results in these students falling between the cracks as their learning is not compared to national standards. These scores are being withdrawn to improve overall scores and please the stakeholders, but the practice is keeping these groups of students from achieving at the same level as students from dominant cultural groups.
Lack of assessment equality is affecting student learning. Ford (2013) reported on a NAPLAN study on achievement in Australia and found significant gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous students which widen as students progress through schooling. Additionally, there are no clear funding allowances dedicated to improving achievement levels for these students. While these statistics may be partially due to bias in assessment methods, there are notable differences in indigenous students’ access to learning, cultural context, and experiences and socio-cultural background. Klenowski (2009) explains that to develop culturally fair and valid assessment, all students must have the opportunity to participate in and demonstrate learning. The content of the assessment tools must not be outside of the experiences of indigenous students. The culturally fair assessment ensures that no ethnic group has an advantage over others, therefore eliminating the privilege of some groups over others.
To implement effective and lasting changes, the ACARA should focus on collaborative efforts between different knowledge systems and consistent communication between stakeholders. Cultural inclusivity requires dialogue that considers all students’ prior knowledge and experience. A solution for this may lie in alternative assessment practices that promote equality through cultural fairness (Klenowski, 2009).
To provide educational reform and remove bias and inequality from assessment modalities, moderation must be performed. Moderation is the process by which favoritism and unfair practices are removed from the assessment. The two main reasons for moderation are the accountability in scoring and improvement in teacher judgment. In many school-based assessment models, statistical moderation is used to ensure the validity and reliability of teacher grading. Unfortunately, statistical moderation only deals with the scores and not with any specific information regarding students. Wilmut and Tuson (2005) emphasize that successful moderation must operate equally across all teacher approaches; be free from ethnic and other biases; aid in curriculum development and administration; be transparent and acceptable as a method of judgment. South Australia uses standardized moderation as a means of developing syllabus-based, subject-specific examination systems with varying amounts of school-based assessments. The results are the basis for tertiary scores defining requirements for higher education (Wilmut & Tuson, 2005). However, because of the highly defined nature of these assessment tools, results cannot be generalized outside of specific subjects.
Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith (2010) discuss social moderation or consensus moderation as opposed to statistical moderation as being crucial for ensuring both the validity and reliability of assessment tools. Social moderation involves groups of teachers meeting to discuss and negotiate how student work is graded, the purpose is to produce “valid and reliable judgments that are consistent with one another and with stated standards of performance” (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2010, p. 114). Moderation allows teachers to understand the meaning of performance standards and how to apply them to various situations. By meeting and sharing ideas, teachers begin to fine-tune their judgment and therefore increase the reliability and consistency of assessment.
Moderation also helps teachers to think critically about how they interpret and use performance standards. By exploring the meaning of various standards as they relate to construct validity, teachers can gain greater clarity of expectations for both themselves and their students regarding assessment tools (Klenowski & Wyatt-Smith, 2010).
Klenowski and Adie (2009) found several proven benefits to the moderation process including the following:
Teachers can ensure that skill sets, and learning outcomes are equitable and of comparable quality.
Maintaining a focus on the quality of assessment ensures fairness of assessment tools.
Assessment policies and practices are made transparent and gaps or inequity can be identified and addressed, particularly if the director of the curriculum takes part in the moderation meetings.
Teachers begin to focus more on assessment and its place in teaching and learning.
Teachers can learn new styles of teaching and create greater diversity in their teaching repertoire.
In addition to open discussion and collaboration on standards, teachers can compare samples of student responses to ascertain the best way to apply standards. Moderation is inherently a “social process of dialogue and negotiation” (Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith, 2010, p. 108), and the collaborative nature of this allows for teachers to determine and ascribe more legitimate and valid values to student work than by attempting to apply the standards alone.
South Australia’s education system and specifically the NAPLAN assessment tests certainly have some areas that need improvement. Creating structured, clearly defined performance standards rather than blanket benchmark standards for each grade will allow teachers to form a curriculum that is more concise and directed to certain learning targets. With vague standards, it is easy to leave out information and aptitude goals that are important for student education. Currently, the NAPLAN is not as inclusive as it should be to meet the needs of all students. When the progress and grades of certain sets of students are eliminated, this says that those students are not important. The NAPLAN needs to revise how skills and learning are assessed to include all types of learning from students of varying cultures and ability levels. Lastly, while assessment moderation is being performed, moving to a more socially based moderation would allow for more collaboration and communication among teachers to improve their judgment of student performance. With some key changes, the NAPLAN has the potential to rise above the rest of high-stakes testing.
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