Politically correct NAPLAN to drop minimum standards

Illiterate students will be described as “developing’’ their reading skills in a politically correct watering down of NAPLAN test reports to remove references to under­performance. Catholic schools in NSW are fighting radical reforms to the national literacy and numeracy tests, warning that new reporting rules will fail to identify thousands of struggling students who need urgent help with basic reading, writing and maths. Online testing, earlier exam dates and simplified reports are among the biggest changes in 15 years to the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy, to be considered by federal, state and territory education ministers. Ministers had already agreed to move the usual May tests to start on March 15 this year, with all pen-and-paper testing replaced with interactive online exams.

Other changes proposed by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) mean this year’s results cannot be compared to the past 14 years of data – making it much harder for parents or teachers to track the impact of school disruptions during the Covid-19 pandemic. ACARA wants to simplify the way it reports student results to parents and schools, by scrapping the categories of “below national minimum standard (NMS) and “at NMS”. Instead, it proposes four new achievement standards on the NAPLAN report card sent home to parents: developing, approaching proficient, proficient and highly proficient. ACARA’s existing definition of “below NMS” states that students “are at risk of being unable to progress satisfactorily at school without targeted intervention’’.

The proposed “developing” category of the poorest performers waters down the description to: “The student has not demonstrated that they have achieved the learning outcomes expected and may need additional support to continue progressing satisfactorily’’. ACARA, a taxpayer-funded agency, refused to release its reform recommendations, citing confidentiality. But organisations briefed by ACARA have raised concerns about the abolition of “minimum standards”, and the break in reporting students’ achievement over time. In a letter to ACARA, Catholic Schools NSW chief executive Dallas McInerney warned against “losing sight of the most at-risk students’’. He estimated that ACARA would categorise 10% of Year 9 students as “developing” their writing skills, a figure lower than the actual 14.3% of students who fell below the national minimum standard in 2022.

“In Year 9 writing, around 12,000 students will be designated as no longer ‘at risk’ after the proposed changes are introduced,’’ Mr McInerney wrote. ACARA also plans to get rid of the 10 bands of achievement – a confusing measurement spanning the lowest Band 1 in Year 3 to the highest Band 10 in Year 9. Instead, the four new proficiency levels will be applied to each year level, making a student’s achievement clearer to parents. Mr McInerney said he feared education ministers would “sleepwalk into throwing out a significant amount of rich educational data’’ by accepting changes that mean data cannot be compared to previous years. “They need to tap the brakes and think long and hard before they make a decision,’’ he said. “In a time of falling learning outcomes, we should be putting the microscope closer to the problem, not pulling it back.’’

Centre for Independent Studies education program director Glenn Fahey said the “developing’’ descriptor did not make it clear to parents that their child was “well below proficiency’’. “The minimum standard is a really low level of achievement and it doesn’t equal satisfactory,’’ Mr Fahey said. Last 10 years has seen ‘a drop’ in school attendance rates ‘across the board’. ACARA wants to change its reporting method this year to coincide with the earlier test date – meaning children sit the test with two months less learning – and the transition to online testing that adapts questions to each child’s ability. Many students who struggled with the old pen-and-paper tests simply failed to answer the questions – but educators have found they are more likely to complete online tests with tailored questions to measure their knowledge.

Mr McInerney has warned ACARA the new reporting regime will prevent longitudinal analysis for several years and “interrupt numerous policy and program evaluations”. “A huge range of programs at both the system and school level are evaluated based on viewing NAPLAN results over time, and so an unnecessary time break would substantially set back program and school improvement efforts,’’ he wrote. Mr McInerney, who runs the biggest Catholic school organisation in Australia, has been publicly touted to fill a NSW Liberal Party vacancy in the Senate triggered by the death of Jim Molan, but has not sought preselection. An ACARA spokesperson said an independent review of NAPLAN in 2020 had argued that the existing national minimum standard was not set at a “challenging enough” level. “Options for ministers to consider provide more challenging but reasonable standards reported in a clear, easy to understand way,’’ the spokesperson said.

“They will identify those students whose results indicate they are likely to need additional support in order to progress satisfactorily. These options have been developed in consultation with expert teachers, education authorities and parents.’’ Federal Education Minister Jason Clare would not say if he supported ACARA’s proposals. NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said she would raise the concerns of stakeholders, including Catholic Schools NSW, with her interstate colleagues. She said NAPLAN must be a “rigorous and modern national diagnostic test that is timely for teachers and helpful for parents’’. Queensland Education Minister Grace Grace said she would “carefully consider all the options’’. Victorian Education Minister Natalie Hutchins said ministers would discuss “how we make NAPLAN more useful for teachers and parents to support students’ education’’.

Source: Compiled by APN based on media reports

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