Testing schools fails students and teachers

by Verity Leatherdale

Compiling 'league tables' for schools that are based on single-global-testing regimes such as NAPLAN can cause reduced learning opportunities, narrower curricula and plummeting student interest in learning, according to Professor of Education Peter Reimann.

Speaking at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work's second Education Heresies colloquium, Professor Reimann said research into decade of global testing in the US, including David Berliner’s work at Arizona State University, had shown that, while increased emphasis on improving basic literacy and numeracy skills which had led to an increase in test scores, it had not reduced the educational gap between students from affluent and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

"Neither has it improved the highest level at which a student performs," he said.

“Early gains in test scores quickly level out, with no sustained positive effects on the quality of schools or teaching: students who have traditionally done well in the US are still doing well, but they are not doing any better than before the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act that ushered in the new testing regime.”

Professor Reimann said recent data for Australia from testing on reading achievement also indicates that top performance levels might actually be going down, with the most likely factor being schools focusing more on basic achievement levels and not as much on the development of reading complex texts.

“Strategies that may work to increase basic literacy and numeracy skills seem not to be enough to move students towards the proficiency level, and from there to a standard of excellence”, he said.

"Achievement testing as it is done today does not provide the information teachers and parents need to foster all students’ learning. It is too little information, and comes too late."

Professor Reimann said, ideally, education should be shaped by providing schools and teachers with information that could help with decision-making as learning takes place.

“Student achievement data alone, in particular when based on a single test like NAPLAN, is not a valid indicator of school quality or teacher quality and therefore not a good enough source of information for parents to base school choice on. We need to use measures to assess how learning is being undertaken in the classroom," he said.

“That requires investment in developing new assessment methods, and into enabling teachers and parents to make good use of nuanced and rich data on students’ learning and development. Everybody has to lift their act, not only students and teachers, but also parents, test developers, politicians, and, indeed, the educators of future teachers.”