“SUNS” COLUMNS 37 and 38 ON CURRICULUM AND TESTING

These columns were published in the Darwin/Palmerson/ Litchfield Suns in April 2014.

Readers are welcome to quote and use, but I would appreciate acknowledgement of the Suns Newspapers.

POSITIONING STATEMENT

I contend it to be wrong for Australian students to be compared with their Singaporean counterparts and with students from other overseas countries. Such comparisons generally diminish Australian students and system priorities.

In Australian context, the fact that Northern Territory students do not stack up favourably against their interstate peers is wrong. For reasons discussed it shouldn’t happen.

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COMPARISONS ARE UNFORTUNATE

Comparing the academic results of Australian students with their overseas counterparts is both unfortunate and unfair. Similarly, comparisons of students within Australia overlooks the social and geographic circumstances impacting on those in our schools. ‘Comparing’ as it is done should only happen if there are careful explanations which show the similarities and differences between countries and students within the testing fields.

Overseas comparison

We frequently read of the way Australian students at primary and secondary level compare with their overseas counterparts. Rarely is that comparison favourable. It usually points to perceived weaknesses and shortfalls in our education programs. A recent story on the front page of ‘The Australian’ (April 1 2014) serves as an example. “Singaporean kids streets ahead on maths” continues the trend of comparing Australian education critically and negatively with overseas educational systems.

Singapore is a small, insular country providing an intense educational program for Singaporeans. Its prime focus is on key subject areas. Students in Singapore and many Asian countries appear lock-stepped into an educational paradigm that allows for little diversion into social and recreational pursuits. It is a case of study, study and study. We also have a values set that upholds the notion of holistic education with a broader curriculum approach. That was confirmed in the Melbourne Declaration signed by Federal, State and Territory Education Ministers and CEO’s in 2008.

Australia is a country offering education to a large number of students, increasingly drawn from a plethora of language, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Many of our immigrants have had little opportunity for deep schooling in the past. We are also a rich mix of urban, provincial, town, rural and remote people, whose social and economic circumstances influence students’ backgrounds.

Nationalisation

Many overseas countries, possibly the majority, have embedded national educational systems. During a visit to Malaysia many years ago, I was told that students in the nine Malaysian States immerse in a standard national curriculum. Further, each subject was taught in all Malaysian classrooms at the same time each day. Curriculum was prescriptive, book centric and rote focussed. Some reports suggest there is now more focus on interpretive and applied learning, but I suspect this is within narrow confines.

National education systems are understandable. Most overseas countries are much smaller and more contained than Australia. The vastness of this country and its developmental evolution, lent to the establishment of state programs rather than an Australian system. It also meant that as we grew nationally, with communication and transport options lessening the tyranny of distance the breaking down of State and Territory boundaries became feasible. However when it comes to nationalising our educational system, Australia is a long way behind many other countries.

Strengths

Rather than decrying Australian Education and accepting the lambasting often handed to educators and students, we need to reflect on some of the positives growing from our approach. Within States and Territories, public and private schools, the following qualities shine through.

* We are open to new ideas and enhanced approaches.
* We strive to offer equal educational opportunity to all students. We recognise and endeavour to accommodate student diversity, isolation, and background.
* Our schools and staff are overwhelmingly sincere and deeply committed to educational challenges.
* We offer in-depth support to those with learning difficulties and special needs.
* There is awareness and focus on the need to consider social, emotional and moral/spiritual development of students.
* We offer distance education (open learning, School of the Air) that is second to none.
* Education is offered to ALL students. No-one is excluded.

These and many other strengths of Australian Education stand out. Statistics and test results aside and taking account of educational complexities we in Australia are there with the best.
_______________________________________________

MORE TO SCHOOL THAN NAPLAN

Along with the rest of Australia, Northern Territory students in years three, five, seven and nine will shortly be sitting the annual National Testing Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests for 2014. Tests are conducted for all students in all Australian Schools on the same days in May each year. The first three days are devoted to test administration, the fourth to ‘catch up’ for students missing on any of these days.

For the Territory NAPLAN week is always week five of term two. The tests this year will be held from 13 to 15 May with the catch-up day on Friday 16 May.

Territory situation

The Northern Territory is in rather a unique place when it comes to NAPLAN. For the purpose of comparison, we are not deemed to have students in “cities” sitting the tests. Darwin, Palmerston and Alice Springs are regarded as being “provincial”. All other Territory students are located in remote or very remote areas.

Thirty-two percent of Northern Territory students are indigenous. A significant percentage otherwise come from overseas backgrounds. Many are quite recent arrivals, people from all parts of the world and often from educationally starved environments. The tests in literacy and numeracy ask many of these students to respond to concepts and understandings unfamiliar to them in terms of culture and background.

Attendance impacts outcomes

The testing program is based on a presumption that all children attend school regularly. For many of our Territory students attendance is sporadic. Efforts are now being made to overcome truancy, particularly in remote schools. There is a belief that attendance is reasonably “regular” if children attend three days out of every five. This means many students sitting for NAPLAN tests do so on the basis of having missed up to 40% of schooling opportunities – hardly a basis for establishing a background of ‘complete’ learning!

Absence from school is not confined to remote area students. The nature of our Territory community means that many children in urban schools miss considerable amounts of time because of family holidays, particularly to overseas destinations. Many families take advantage of airfare and accomodation discounts not available during school holiday periods. This means children miss a significant amount of schooling.

Tardiness and lateness to school also impacts on learning. A student who is 15 minutes late to school each day misses nine and a half school days each year. Missed days and lateness diminish learning opportunities and impact on test results. These factors all contribute to Territory outcomes which generally show us in many areas as being below or substantially below Australian averages.

Considerations

It would be wrong to discount Territory Education on the basis of NAPLAN alone. There is much, much more to educational development than occasional test results.
NAPLAN testing raises the following matters for consideration
* Many students stress out when confronted with testing regimes.
* Those sitting tests may fail to see the logic for testing, especially as lead up weeks are often so focussed on preparation that many other things are set aside. Preparation focussing on narrow fields of ‘testing readiness’ is repetitious and monotonous.
* Students who are unwell on testing days will do less well than expected.
* There can be upsets within their lives that detract from student effort.
* An added pressure is that of students feeling that if they don’t do well, this will reflect on their schools, teachers and families.

National assessment and testing is a compulsory element of all State and Territory systems. However, this regime is by no means the ‘be all and end all’ of education. Happy, accomplishing students and successful schools are about far more than NAPLAN testing.

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