Moving on from NAPLAN: Will the proposal put forward by the UNSW Gonski Institute for Education take us in the right direction?

Work with educational measurement experts to create solutions. 
Dr Sandy Heldsinger
Jun 11, 2021
An alternative to NAPLAN needs input from Australian educational measurement experts.

Have you seen the recent report published by NSW Gonski Institute for Education about moving on from NAPLAN? One thing is for sure, there have been lots of reports about NAPLAN and it gets a bit difficult remembering which is which. Whilst it is tempting to ignore yet another report, I have decided to draw your attention to this latest report, for the simple reason that it does not acknowledge good work already happening in Australia.

I will call this latest report the Gonski Institute Report so as to distinguish it from the Gonski 2.0 Report. (You may remember the Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools published in March 2018, which we shortened to Gonski 2.0).

The Gonski Institute Report follows the McGaw Review. Now this was the review of NAPLAN commissioned by NSW, Victorian, Queensland and ACT governments and led by Professors Barry McGaw, William Louden and Claire Wyatt-Smith. The purpose of the review was to identify what a standardised testing regime in Australian schools should deliver, assess how well NAPLAN achieves this, and identify short and longer-term improvements that can be made to NAPLAN. The Gonski Institute Report is critical of The McGaw Review for not evaluating NAPLAN directly against its stated aims.

The Gonski Institute’s Report, itself, is damming of NAPLAN:

'NAPLAN is, at worst, deeply problematic, imposing a range of undesirable dynamics and consequences. At best, it represents a lost opportunity to harness the potential of assessment to strengthen the fabric of education in schools, provide a valuable resource for teacher professionalism, drive student learning outcomes and meet the national education goals for young Australians stated in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration.'

I am not going to wade in about NAPLAN for two reasons. One, school leaders I respect find NAPLAN data useful. Two, I do not believe the continual criticism of NAPLAN is helping us advance our thinking about assessment.

The Gonski Institute Report does go beyond simply hammering NAPLAN to portray a new Australian national assessment system that aims to address the needs of students, teachers, parents and educational systems. The authors of the report, Rachel Wilson and Adrian Piccoli, with assistance from Andy Hargreaves, Pak Tee Ng and Pasi Sahlberg, set out the principles for an assessment system that reflects a more contemporary perspective on what modern educational assessment policy and systems can achieve. The objectives they set include:

1 Aligning educational standards and student assessment
2 Finding a balance between summative and formative assessment
3 Balancing external assessments and teacher-based assessments in the assessment of learning
4 Developing fair assessments to (sic) all student groups
5 Designing large-scale assessments that are instructionally useful
6 Ensuring fairness in assessment and marking across schools
7 Securing informative reporting of student assessment results
8 Maximising the potential of student learning through the assessment process
9 Ensuring the assessment is informed, valued and of optimal utility to the teaching profession.

These objectives are sensible and I do not think anyone will quibble with them. I whole heartedly support the author’s vision for a new assessment system that is productive and cost-effective.

Here’s the rub: I am frustrated by reports such as this one that broadly scope what needs to be done with assessment and offer lofty ideals about the benefits of formative assessment but that do not offer any tangible solutions.  The authors point to assessment systems in other high-performing education systems, namely Scotland, Singapore, Ontario and Finland. They explain these education systems are good examples for their investment in assessment expertise. Andy Hargreaves provides useful recounts of the history of assessment in Scotland and Ontario; Pak Tee Ng describes the high stakes nature of assessment in Singapore; and Pasi Sahlberg sets out the assessment practices followed in Finland.  I am not convinced, from my reading of their discussion, that the four jurisdictions have adequately solved their own assessment challenges. I certainly do not think they offer models that will help Australia achieve its own assessment vision.

I am sure that you are already aware that there is considerable educational measurement expertise in Australia. And I think many of you will have heard of the Online Formative Assessment Initiative (OFAI) being led by the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) and Education Services Australia (ESA). The aims of the OFAI are very closely aligned to the objectives set out in the Gonksi Institute’s report and my understanding is that the OFAI is the Australian Federal government’s response to Gonski 2.0.

The Australian government asked Christine Cawsey, Professor John Hattie and Professor Geoff Masters to review Gosnki 2.0 before it acted upon its recommendations. I know, so many reports! But where the Cawsey, Hattie and Masters report (let’s call it the Cawsey Report) is different is that the authors ‘got tangible’. They reviewed existing classroom assessment tools, including online, on-demand tools and they explained in some detail the work that needs to be done to develop an assessment system that supports effectives formative assessment. The Cawsey Report acknowledged the educational measurement expertise in Australia, when they observed,

‘While there is no shortage of classroom assessment tools, including online, on-demand tools, there are relatively few tools aligned with well-constructed learning progressions and capable of providing information about the points students have reached in their learning and the growth they have made over time. The Brightpath resources and Progressive Achievement Tests mentioned above are among widely-used exceptions.’

I do not agree completely with all aspects of the methodology proposed in The Cawsey Report but at least their report gives us more than generic assessment principles. My understanding is that ACARA, AITSL and ESA have made good progress in scoping what needs to be done to create the OFAI and again I don’t agree with everything I read about OFAI, but it is great that Australia is investing in finding a way to support effective classroom formative assessment.

Assessment is complex because it requires that we understand how learning develops and that we find ways to map that development to assist teachers in teaching to their students’ point of need. I think enough has now been written about the ideals of formative assessment. My challenge to the Gonski institute is to work with educational measurement experts to create solutions so that highly productive formative assessment becomes a matter of course in Australian classrooms.   

Here are the links to the reports, in case you are interested!

Dr Sandy Heldsinger is leading the development of the Brightpath assessment and reporting software in schools and she acknowledges her conflict of interest in this article.