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School curriculum review leaves value of education in question

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The Australian Curriculum is under review, with a review of NAPLAN to be scheduled soon (Screenshot via YouTube)

A review of the Australian testing curriculum could leave students without valuable skills to face real-world challenges, writes Ben Kilby.

WHAT DO WE VALUE in education?

This is a key question that needs addressing in light of the recent announcement for a review of the Australian Curriculum.

Our obsession with standardised test scores from assessments such as the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) indicates that this is all we value for our kids. However, a comparison of two key standardised tests shows that even in this narrow area we are failing.

Since NAPLAN began in 2008, there has been a small overall upward trend in results in most areas and most year levels. However, the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) results since 2003 show significant declines in all areas.

Below are graphs comparing NAPLAN results in reading and numeracy for year nine students with PISA results for 15-year-olds in reading and maths. While both NAPLAN and PISA are standardised tests, assessing the same subjects and students of the same age, they trend in opposite directions. Why is this?

What are PISA and NAPLAN?

PISA assesses 15-year-old students from OECD countries around the world in reading, maths and science every three years. One of the benefits of PISA is that it’s standardised across the world, allowing Australia to directly compare results with other countries. NAPLAN is basically the same, but national instead of international, every year instead of every three, grades 3/5/7/9 rather than just 15-year olds and it doesn’t include science (do we not value science in Australia?).

The question, then, is why do NAPLAN results in reading and maths trend upwards over the past 11 years and why do PISA results in reading and maths trend downwards over the past 15 years?

One answer lies in the goals of the test and therefore kinds of questions asked. NAPLAN is described as testing the ‘types of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life’, while PISA is described as measuring students’ ‘ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges’. This may be a subtle difference in the one-sentence description of each test, but what it indicates is that NAPLAN tests basic skills and PISA tests the application of basic skills to real life.

When we draw this out, the difference in the results between the two tests becomes clearer — Australian students are trending upwards in how well they can answer standardised test questions in formal academic settings but are trending downwards in how well they can apply those basic skills to complex real-world problems.

Again, this asks us to think: what do we value in education?

My view is that the basic skills tested in NAPLAN are entirely useless if students fail to be equipped with the capacity to apply their skills to the real world.

There’s a lot going on right now that may shape the future of Australian education. A review of NAPLAN is scheduled to be released any time now, and the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has just begun a review of the Australian Curriculum.

The Terms of Reference for the Australian Curriculum review specifically state that one aim is to ‘refine and reduce the amount of content’. This strikes of the “back to basics” rhetoric recently seen in NSW, with the Premier stating “literacy and numeracy will remain the focus throughout a student’s school experience”.

Once more, what do we value in education? Back to basics? Literacy and numeracy only?

Perhaps our PISA results would not be so poor if we gave priority to the kinds of learning that empowered students with the capacity to apply skills to complex real-world problems rather than rehearsing standardised answers to test questions.

In the Australian context, this is most notably found in the Critical and Creative Thinking capability of the curriculum. Critical and creative thinking is fundamental to education. This phrase comes from Matthew Lipman’s Philosophy for Children program that began in the 1970s, indeed the Australasian Journal of Philosophy for Children that began in 1993 was called Critical and Creative Thinking. This area is important because it doesn’t teach content at all — it develops in students ways of thinking. This is the kind of thinking that allows students to apply skills, including literacy and numeracy skills, in varying and complex contexts.

Speaking of philosophy, another capability in the curriculum is Ethical Understanding. This focuses students on understanding, reasoning and acting with regard to the ethics of a situation, allowing them to become good people (whatever ethical view of “good” they might have). This is something that is vitally important for all children.

Intercultural Understanding is also there. With the current vitriol both within Australia and abroad resulting from the Black Lives Matter movement, this learning area is going to be fundamental for any child to participate in our multicultural world.

Also in the Australian Curriculum is the Personal and Social capability, which focuses on an understanding of self and others and the relationships between the two. Is this area of education important? Perhaps instead of focusing all our attention on our standardised test results in reading and maths, we should’ve focused on another part of PISA — student wellbeing.

In addition to academic areas, PISA also reports on student wellbeing. Australia scored below the OECD average in all three categories that make up ‘students’ life satisfaction and meaning in life’. The prompts that made up this included: ‘My life has clear meaning and purpose’, ‘I have discovered a satisfactory meaning in life’ and ‘I have a clear sense of what gives meaning to my life’.

The countries in front of us (but still below the OECD average) include Latvia, Poland, Estonia, Malta and the Slovak Republic. Combine this with reports stating that just under one in four young people aged 15-19 met the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness and that teachers are overwhelmed with mental health concerns from students, it’s clear that we have a significant wellbeing issue in Australian schools.

What’s going to happen to our children if areas such as the four capabilities above are reduced or removed from the curriculum to make way for more reading and maths? Presumably, our NAPLAN scores will go up. But at what cost?

So again, I ask, what do we value in education?

Ben Kilby is a PhD candidate in Education at Monash University, a teacher, and Chair of the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools.

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