NAPLAN: it's a useful tool in your professional toolbox
March 2011; Pages 26–28
The NAPLAN test provides a valuable snapshot of student performance on various measures of literacy and numeracy and, as such, provides accountability for the public funding of education. NAPLAN data helps teachers to diagnose the learning needs of individual students, and to customise their own teaching accordingly. The data is of greatest value when teachers review it collectively, comparing a student's results to those of peers in that subject area and to previous results, and drawing lessons for other areas of teaching in their school. They may, for example, detect and address poor school-wide performances on spelling, inferential reading, comprehension or decoding. Teachers should be reassured about concerns that NAPLAN will encourage 'teaching to the test'. The nature of the tests means that students cannot 'cram' for them. The ways in which teachers can prepare students for NAPLAN, by teaching about test-taking procedures and by explaining marking, are of more general benefit to students. Teachers may tweak their courses in line with changing test topics, for example shifting emphasis from narrative to persuasive writing, but these minor adjustments do not distort the teaching and learning process. However, problems arise when NAPLAN data is used to compare school performances. Some schools are categorised as 'like' one another on the My School website, but their similarities may conceal subtle but important differences that preclude meaningful comparisons. For example, schools may have similar numbers of ESL students, but will be very dissimilar if one caters to language learners from stable and literate backgrounds and the other to refugee students with disrupted family life and poor literacy. 'Like' schools may also be very dissimilar in terms of teacher demographics, for example in their relative professional experience.
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning
Accountability through high-stakes testing and curriculum change
Volume 16 Number 2, 2010; Pages 1–15
A study in Queensland has examined the potential of high-stakes tests to improve school performance. High-stakes tests have generated widespread criticism and concern that they distort teaching and schooling by encouraging teaching to the test and a narrowing of the school curriculum, and by creating an inducement for schools to restrict enrolments so as to raise students’ average test scores. The study investigated one of these concerns, the narrowing of the curriculum to align with testing the requirements of the Year 12 Queensland Core Skills (QCS). This test, undertaken across school sectors, assesses skills across 49 curriculum elements that span the state’s senior syllabuses. Students’ final grades are determined by a combination of their results on the QCS and internal school assessments. Since 2005 the Queensland Government has published schools’ results on this test. As part of a larger case study the author reviewed relevant literature and interviewed principals at three independent schools, two metropolitan and one regional. All three principals indicated that they felt growing pressure to be accountable, and agreed that publication of test results was a component of this pressure, having a strong impact on school enrolments. As a by-product of the publication of test results, they now devoted a substantial amount of time to school image and ‘protecting their brand’. All three principals also indicated explicitly that they had revised the school curriculum so that it corresponded more closely to high-stakes test requirements, but presented this alignment in positive terms. One of the three principals ‘considered the quality of the QCS as a learning instrument was high’ and she was therefore ‘quite open’ to adjusting the school curriculum in line with test requirements. Another principal ‘wanted change that directly impacted on student learning’ and ‘could be seen in terms of results’. The third principal again ‘wanted the curriculum to be rigorous and focused on producing better results’ in terms of the exit test. The author asks whether ‘curriculum narrowing is necessarily a bad thing, especially if the focus is on skills’. Accountability for public money will inevitably generate further curriculum change ‘in an attempt to ensure the best possible test results’.
New South Wales (NSW)
The benefits of problem based learning
March 2011; Pages 21–24
Problem based learning is a form of instruction that challenges students to solve ill-defined problems, set in a particular context but with little other information supplied. To solve the problem students usually work in groups, discussing different possibilities and sharing their own perspectives. The group learning is self-directed, the teacher acting as coach or guide rather than direct instructor. There are many benefits of problem based learning. It develops analytical skills and higher order thinking, which may otherwise be neglected in the curriculum, despite general recognition of their value. These skills include the abilities to 'evaluate, generalise, hypothesise, synthesise and analyse information'. Problem based learning also encourages collaboration, which involves 'listening, cooperating, negotiating and communicating', in ways that will be required of students during higher education and in the workplace. Such learning also encourages students to direct their own learning, an essential skill giving the fluidity of needs in the workplace and the requirement to operate across changing, often unfamiliar situations. Implementing problem based learning firstly involves setting a suitable problem. The problems need to be authentic and to engage students' interest. It must allow students to connect the problem to their existing knowledge. It must also provide scope for students to develop their own distinctive solutions rather than follow a single course. The problem should call on students to pose their own questions along the way. Such learning gives students a sense of ownership of their learning. To guide students' independent learning, the teacher may wish to model the sort of questioning that students will need to undertake, and model the use of skills such as hypothesising. Problem based learning should be introduced gradually to allow students to adjust to it. Teachers will probably need to provide a significant degree of guidance during the early stages of implementation. However, teachers should also encourage students to document their own learning process so that they can reflect on and develop it. The article includes two case studies of problems applicable to school science classes.
Subject HeadingsProject based learning
Inquiry based learning
Teaching and learning
Cultivating effective teachers: the role of performance assessment
February 2011; Pages 18–19
Efforts are being made in the USA to introduce national teaching standards, a move that is relevant to Australia. Linda Darling Hammond, author of the report Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness, outlines ways in which performance assessments can inform teacher accreditation and training. In almost all US states teachers must pass tests on basic skills, relevant subject content and teaching knowledge, but Darling Hammond challenges their value in helping teachers in the classroom. Classroom observations by principals are of limited value as they may be 'indifferent', offer little useful feedback, do little to differentiate teachers, or focus on superficial aspects of teachers' skills and knowledge. By contrast, performance assessments reflect teachers' capacities much more closely. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards provides a standards-based approach to the assessment of teachers. The NBPTS standards are used in 32 US states. Large-scale studies in Florida and North Carolina have found that students made significantly greater advances when they had NBPTS-accredited teachers. Twenty US states have now moved to develop standardised teacher assessments for beginning teachers. As with the NBPTS process, the assessments would be portfolio-based. Teachers would be measured through the use of classroom videos, teacher's own reflections, feedback from peers and from students, and student results from different types of tests. A pilot version of the standards has already commenced, with the aim of establishing a national system of teacher performance assessments by 2015. While such a system is complex and resource-intensive, it has the potential to improve teacher performance significantly.
Teaching and learning
United States of America (USA)
Leadership engagement: some lessons from case studies
Volume 16 Number 2, 2010; Pages 30–45
Since the early 1990s public policy has sought to integrate students with disabilities into mainstream schooling. This drive has been accompanied by measures to give them educational opportunities equal to those of other students in these settings. A recent research project has investigated principals’ impact on provision for students with disabilities within mainstream schools. The study applies a ‘backward mapping’ approach, which seeks to identify and generalise from effective practices by principals. The research involved case studies at four secondary schools within a Catholic education system. The schools were identified by educators in that system as the most successful at including disabled students in learning. The researchers sent questionnaires to each school to be completed by the principal, all teachers and selected parents and students. Following the questionnaires, interviews were held with 179 selected teachers, parents and students. From the results the researchers identified four types of positive engagement by principals in successful provision of learning opportunities for students with disabilities. Engagement may be pedagogical: they ‘teach the teachers’. Organisational engagement involves the principal in setting, developing and promoting effective structures and processes. Engagement may also be with people, developing relationships with and between staff, parents and students. Engagement with vision means using broad goals to mobilise the school community. In contrast, disengaged delegation leaves the principal distanced from effective inclusion practices that are managed by other school staff. At the first school, Lakeside High, the principal applied a mixture of pedagogical and organisational engagement as he put in place new teaching practices backed up by processes to support them. At Viewpoint High the principal adopted a relational, people-centred approach enhanced by her ability to inspire people with a vision for inclusiveness of students with disabilities, while at Sunshine High the principal’s approach was mainly organisational. At Riverland High, on the other hand, the principal simply left intact a very effective process for inclusiveness inherited from her predecessor and managed by key school staff. The study found that the principles for providing learning opportunities for students with disabilities are closely related to more general principles of leadership for learning.
Subject HeadingsEducational evaluation
The ripple effect
March 2011; Pages 6–10
Philanthropic foundations in the USA are playing a significant role in driving changes to school education policy. The most significant of these organisations is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded Renaissance 2010, a project designed to replace struggling public schools with semi-independent charter schools. This project appears to have been a pilot for the current Race to the Top program, which allocates grants to US states that implement four key reforms. The reforms cover standards and assessment, teacher effectiveness, the collection and use of school data, and measures to 'turn around' struggling schools. The US Government has signalled that its educational grants for disadvantaged schools will in future be allocated via completion rather than through set formula, to spur change along the desired lines. The Race to the Top application process for US states requires them to design a K–12 reform program 'and then write a 350 page application'. The Gates Foundation has offered consultancy support to states in making these resource-intensive applications, requiring however that the states' applications met eight criteria. The criteria included a commitment to offering alternative routes to teacher certification and limited teacher tenure. There is also some evidence to suggest that applicant states need to ensure that they have processes in place to link teacher evaluations to student test data. Philanthropic foundations have also given heavy encouragement to the development of charter schools, despite these schools' modest record of achievement. The article considers the potential impact of US education on policy in Australia, in terms of accountability measures, teacher evaluation, teacher performance incentives and school autonomy.
Subject HeadingsTeaching profession
Education and state
United States of America (USA)
Success against the odds
Volume 24 Number 2, 2011; Pages 8–11
A recent Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) study, undertaken for the National Centre for Vocational Educational Research (NCVER), examined the post-school pathways taken by 1,596 students in 294 Australian schools. This group had been identified as low achievers in the 2003 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). A ‘low achiever’, according to PISA, is a student performing at less than proficiency level 3. At this level students can carry out clearly described procedures; select and apply simple problem-solving strategies; interpret and use representations based on different information sources, and reason directly from them; and develop short communications reporting their interpretations, results and reasoning. The LSAY study aimed to investigate whether low-achieving students experienced poor post-school outcomes, and what factors influenced the success of outcomes. ‘Success’, for the purpose of this research, is defined as a youth who is fully occupied with study or employment and has a sense of satisfaction with life. The participants were contacted once every year for four years to answer questions relating to work, study and general happiness. In 2007, 40 per cent were undertaking study or training, 30 per cent were employed full time and 17 per cent were employed part time. However, when compared with all students in the program this group included more than twice the number who were not employed or not engaged in a form of study. The low-achieving students from low socioeconomic backgrounds had less successful outcomes than the students from more affluent homes. Motivation and direction played a key part in a student’s post-school success, particularly with female students. Girls who had had a positive learning experience were more likely to be fully occupied with employment or study and to be generally happy with their current situation. The report, Success despite the odds? Post-school pathways of low mathematics performers in Australia, is available from www.lsay.edu.au.
Key Learning AreasMathematics
Subject HeadingsSecondary education
Senior secondary education
Exploring mathematical competencies
Volume 24 Number 5, 2011; Pages 3–7
The author identified six mathematical competencies and discusses them in relation to sample test questions used in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). ‘Communication’ is the reading, decoding and interpreting of incoming statements and mathematical information; and the explaining, presenting and arguing of outgoing information. ‘Mathematising’ is the process of transforming a real-world problem into a mathematical problem, and is interpreting mathematical objects or information in relation to the situation represented. ‘Representation’ is devising or using depictions of mathematical objects or relationships, such as equations, formulae and graphs. ‘Reasoning and argument’ are logically rooted thought processes that explore and link problem elements to make inferences from them; or to check a given justification; or to provide a justification. ‘Strategic thinking’ involves selecting or devising, and implementing, a mathematical strategy to solve problems arising from the task or context. ‘Using symbolic, formal and technical language and operations’ involves understanding, manipulating, and making use of symbolic expressions; and using constructs based on definitions, rules and conventions and formal systems. Three questions from the PISA are used to illustrate the relationship between the degree of difficulty of a problem and the specific competencies that need to be applied when solving it. A close study of students’ answers affirms the importance of the six competencies. Possessing the competencies will assist students in overcoming a key problem identified in Australian students’ PISA results: they struggle to apply mathematical knowledge to unfamiliar contexts.
Key Learning AreasMathematics
Subject HeadingsMathematics teaching
The high school experience: what students say
Volume 20 Number 2, July 2010; Pages 87–104
Students have valuable opinions on their learning and school experiences. Traditionally their views were overlooked; however, as learners they have a distinct vantage point from which to provide reliable, accurate information that may improve teaching and learning. A study was conducted on 14 Year 11 students from a Perth government school to identify their perceptions of learning and school experiences. The students were initially surveyed about their opinions. The responses from the survey generated the discussion topics for two student focus groups. Each had a mix of male and female students, aged between 15 and 17 years. The small, intimate style of the focus groups encouraged students to open up. A number of themes emerged. Students indicated that classes would be more fun and much easier if their interests were factored into the curriculum and lesson plans. They felt, however, that teachers did not have the time to find out what interested them. Students stated that their learning benefited from a variety of activities, for example, a combination of bookwork, class discussion and practical activity. Students found that examples that related to 'real life' situations helped them understand concepts. The discussions revealed that students wanted to be involved in decisions around the curriculum and classroom practices. They valued the opportunity to voice their opinions and wanted to be heard by teachers. The students stated that teachers' personal characteristics, such as passion, a good sense of humour and respect for students, contributed positively to their learning experience. They wanted encouragement, support and honesty from teachers and valued a strong relationship with parents and peers. Some students felt learning was their responsibility, while others shifted that responsibility to teachers. Discussion on the importance of personal goals and future ambitions identified differing opinions. In one group students' long-term motivations were driven by financial incentives, while in the other group students desired to 'be something'. The students voiced strong views that schools prioritised order in the classroom to enhance their own reputations rather than focusing on the students as learners.
Subject HeadingsWestern Australia (WA)
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