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EDUCATION, EMPLOYMENT AND WORKPLACE RELATIONS REFERENCES COMMITTEE - 29/10/2010 - National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy

Estimates & Committees
Sarah Hanson-Young 29 Oct 2010

Senator Hanson Young -You have talked about this as a complementary measure to the already existing NAPLAN tests and you are arguing that being able to put out all this information means more transparency and greater breadth of information. In your opening statement you made a comment around needing to use this for action. What do you mean by that? How do you think either the current system, or the value-added measures, is helping (a) parents (b) teachers and (c) the government?

Dr Jensen -I think you are asking me to give an overall impression on the process and then a view on the actions. On the overall impression, I think it is hard to argue that parents are not interested in this information. I do believe it is important information. I do not believe for a second that it presents the total value that schools contribute to students, but it is an indicator. I would definitely hope that, as the years go by, the emphasis we place on this is reduced and I predict it will be. That is what has happened in other countries. But I do believe it highlights errors. I think education overall is an area that has lacked transparency and I think our students have fared worse because of that. While people talk a lot about accountability for teachers and school principals, I actually think this introduces, and will introduce, an element of political accountability that is long overdue.

Senator Hanson Young -For the government departments, state and federal?

Dr Jensen -Yes, for all of them-and not just for government, but administrative accountability for those people who run independent systems, Catholic systems et cetera. I think that when we introduce financial data onto My School we are going to start a lot of conversations about whether our resources are being effectively spent to help students. That is a conversation that is long overdue in school education. I think that parents will ask-and I am not just talking about parents with children in independent schools-'I am spending X for this; am I really getting value for money?' But I also think we will get conversations such as 'My state government is spending this per student; why are they performing at a lower level than students in other jurisdictions where the governments spend less?'-those sorts of conversations.

I would like to return to the question about the specific actions. We have a real problem in our country of letting students slip further and further behind. If you look at the NAPLAN data, in year 3 roughly eight per cent of students perform at or below minimum levels of writing literacy. By year 9, it is over 30 per cent-nearly a third of students are performing at or below minimum levels of writing literacy. That is an incredible percentage of students. Not only do we fail to address and help the students who are performing poorly at a young age, we actually let others fall to that level as well. So I think there is a good case to be made that, as soon as a student falls to those levels-particularly the younger they are, because if we get them young we can help them much more efficiently, much more effectively-we should institute specific programs to help them. This could be special assistance or simply identifying to the school principal, 'You have these students who really need your help.' I think that can work effectively; it has in other countries-very high-performing countries which do not have the same problems of very low performance that we have.

Senator Hanson Young -Looking at the NAPLAN data, even if we took on board your recommendations about value-added measures, I can see an inherent conflict in the uses of the transparency you argue we have the opportunity to create. On the one hand, that transparency offers information to parents to make choices, leading to competition between providers, between schools. On the other hand is the opportunity to use that transparency, that information, to target those kids that are most in need, the ones who, as you are saying, are in the eight per cent performing below minimum standards of literacy in grade 3 or in the 30 per cent below by year 9. So how do we balance the inherent conflict between using this information to create competition and using it as a way to address real problems?

Dr Jensen -I am not quite sure that it is an inherent conflict. I am one who does not actually view this so much as competition, because I think the notion of competition between schools is largely a misconception. We look at competition in terms of school principals wanting more students to come to their school for a reason. That may exist somewhat in the independent sector, but I do not know many government teachers-or many teachers full stop-who actually want more students in their classrooms. So I think the arguments about competition are misconceived, to say the least.

Senator Hanson Young -So it is not about choice then?

Dr Jensen -I think the website definitely encourages choice, but I just think we have to be careful about saying that that therefore equals competition.

Senator Hanson Young -Okay.

Dr Jensen -I do definitely understand that once you make information public you increase accountability and therefore you increase the susceptibility of that information to being corrupted. There is no doubt that that is the case. So I definitely agree that it is a real balancing act, and you have to put in sufficient measures to make sure that data integrity is kept at a premium. If we put the language around My School as one of a development tool-and I do not think that is the language of My School at the moment-then I think we can start to overcome some of these issues, but I agree that we will not overcome them completely. Once you make information public, you therefore create accountability and therefore it is more corruptible.

There are numerous steps that can be taken to address some of these issues such as students being told to stay home et cetera. In the UK it was very simple: any student who did not sit the test got a zero, and you suddenly saw the number of students being asked to stay home drop dramatically. That is a very hard rule to take, but there are methods we can use to increase the integrity of the data.

Senator Hanson Young -Why do you think at the moment NAPLAN is being used as a kind of be-all and end-all? Is it because we have not developed these other techniques or measures in order to collect the data across the board, or is it because it is the quickest, fastest, least resource intensive way? Everyone knows: here are your sheets and you do it on the same day of the week as everyone else around the country. Why has it been NAPLAN that is being used as simply the raw data?

Dr Jensen -First of all, I actually do not believe that NAPLAN is considered the be-all and end-all by all people involved. For students, I disagree thoroughly that they consider NAPLAN to be the biggest day of their life. Speak to any year 12 student doing their VCE exams or their HSC exams and ask them: which is more stressful, this exam period or the NAPLAN assessments? You will get a very, very clear answer. You ask parents which is more important, their HSC-whether or not their student drops out of school-or their NAPLAN performance, and I doubt that any parent could tell you what their child's NAPLAN performance was 10 years after they have been to school. We do not have that data, obviously. But it is clear that there is an emphasis on it. I just say that it is not for all stakeholders, and I think somehow we are prone to overstate the impact it has on families and students-and that is not to negate the impact it clearly has had on some students.

Why is it acting as the be-all and end-all? One reason, I think, is that the My School website happened this year, and I think over time the be-all and end-all or the emphasis placed on it will diminish somewhat. But for NAPLAN itself I think it is because we have had a problem with low performance in literacy and numeracy. I do not know that we have taken the right steps to address that in terms of using this data as effectively as we can, but I think that has been a key issue. All the research has said that high-performing countries have these assessments and use them to improve performance, to increase accountability and to increase choice, and I think that research has driven a lot of the development of these initiatives.

And I think there is just a general push towards transparency. My School has been a dramatic increase in transparency in school education. That has been undertaken in an industry or a sector that has not had a lot of transparency-particularly when you consider that this year we are going to put financial information on it as well. That is a huge increase from where we have been. I think whenever you have that sort of change you are going to get this sort of emphasis.

Senator Hanson Young -Transparency, I think we could all argue, is important, particularly as a way of identifying where there are gaps that need to be filled and whether maybe we need to change the way some things are working over here: why are these schools and students in this school not struggling as much as these schools? But, unless there is actually that follow-up to address the difference, what is the point of transparency, and where have we seen that correlation? How would the value-added measure deal with being able to give more information, whether it be to governments or the administrative wings of whatever school system we are talking about? How are they going to use that as a way of saying, 'Well, clearly something has to happen here'?

Dr Jensen -Moving to value-added and not having actions that follow the value-added score-

Senator Hanson Young -Is not going to do anything.

Dr Jensen -No. For me I see the value in making this information transparent and public, but the greater value comes in the actions that this data triggers or leads to. Making value-added the measure can help because it emphasises student progress. First of all it helps because it is a more accurate measure. If you do not have an accurate measure of school performance-performance just in the test scores we are talking about, obviously-then the programs you have in place that stem from that measure resources can easily become misallocated because they are going to the wrong schools or the programs are not addressing the right issues. So if you have a more accurate measure it will increase the effectiveness of the system overall.

Added to that is the emphasis on student progress. You will always hear, 'This is just one test at one point in time; it really does not mean much.'  But if you emphasise student progress over time it does provide much more valuable information to school principals and teachers, because it is one thing to say 'my child is performing below the average' or 'this group of students is performing below average', but if they progressed a long way and they were right down the very bottom before then if you are looking at these value-added measures you can say, 'Actually, we are making really good progress here. Let's keep on doing it and find out why we are making this progress and exploit it and put it throughout the school.' But if you do not have that, if you do not focus on the progress, and you see that we have got this same group of students performing below the average, a), you may not realise that you are actually making great progress, b), you cannot exploit the good practices that have helped those students and, c), you might actually get penalised because they are below the average.

Senator Hanson Young -In order to do all of this we need a base level. Where do you think the base level should be set at? Is it when a student starts their schooling? If we are going to take away the emphasis on background and this idea of not needing to use socioeconomic indicators as part of the mix, surely there need to be say way to measure what that baseline is. Kids who go through a certain kindergarten stream obviously are starting from a different base to other kids. What is your answer to providing that baseline if we are not going to use socioeconomic indicators.

Dr Jensen -I think we still need to use the socioeconomic indicators. We do not test frequently enough to do that. I am not arguing that we do increase the frequency to something that has been discussed. Although I do think there is value in doing that I think we have to weigh the costs and benefits of that. In terms of what the baseline is, you probably have people appearing before you today who are better placed to answer that question. You have some of the world's leading assessment experts. I will stress that I have worked a lot internationally and I cannot tell you the number of times I have been asked why Australia has the world's best people in assessment. What is it the government is doing to create these people? We are very fortunate to have the people who run these assessments, and I think you have three of four of them appearing this afternoon. I think they would be more qualified than me to answer the question about how young you can assess students, what the baseline is and what that should be. I would like to leave that to them. At the moment I still think there is great value in having a year 3 to year 5 value-added measure and years 7, 9 and 12 for secondary schools.

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