Thursday, September 15, 2005

"Postmodern" student assessments rejected

Australians love competitive sport and the idea of winners and losers. Australian parents also want to know how well their children are travelling against others at school and whether they have passed or failed.

Unfortunately, this is the very thing parents are denied. As noted by a federal report evaluating school reports and student assessment, titled Reporting on School and Student Achievement: "Parents understand how difficult it may be for teachers to convey bad news, but nevertheless they indicate that they want a fair and honest assessment, in plain language, of the progress of their children. "There is a lack of objective standards that parents can use to determine their children's attainment and rate of progress. Many parents specifically asked for information that would enable them to compare their children's progress with other students or with state, territory-wide or national standards."

Since the early 1990s, as a result of state and territory education systems adopting fads such as outcomes-based education, traditional forms of assessment have been replaced by what is called formative assessment. Teachers committed to formative assessment are against ranking students and using letter grades or percentages. It's assumed that failing is bad for self-esteem, that all students, given enough resources and time, will succeed and, as learning is personal, students cannot be compared.

Formative assessment also embraces a developmental approach to learning, based on the argument that "students develop and learn at different rates and in different ways" and "the rate of individual development and learning can vary enormously and students may achieve a particular standard at different age levels".

The result? Instead of pass or fail, student progress or lack of progress is clouded by suchpolitically correct terms as beginning, established, consolidating or emerging, solid, comprehensive. Instead of students facing regular examinations with consequences for failure, as do those students in stronger performing education systems overseas, students are automatically promoted from year to year, even though many have not mastered the basics.

While parents want an end to politically correct reports, the same cannot be said for those seeking to control our education system. The Australian Education Union, in addition to opposing statewide literacy and numeracy tests, is totally opposed to competitive, graded assessment, where students are ranked against one another or against set, year-level standards. Not only does the AEU argue that competitive assessment is socially unjust, as some groups in society tend to be better than others, the union also argues that collaboration is better than competition as everyone should be able to experience success.

Such is the influence of the postmodern on education that the Australian Council of Deans of Education, in New Learning: A Charter for Australian Education, also argues against testing students on the basis that some will pass and some will fail.

The deans argue that there are no absolutes, as knowledge is always tentative and shifting and, as a result, there are no right or wrong answers. Pass-fail and traditional approaches to learning are considered obsolete: "The essence of the old basics was encapsulated simply in the subject areas of the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic it was a kind of shopping list of things-to-be-known - through drilling the times tables, memorising spelling lists, learning the parts of speech and correct grammar. "There is no way that a curriculum based on factual content or straightforward right and wrong answers can anticipate the range of life alternatives any one student is likely to encounter across a lifetime."

The Australian Association for the Teaching of English is also opposed to the more traditional forms of assessment. In the jargon much loved by educrats, the AATE's policy, entitled Assessment and Reporting English, states: "The use of decontextualised, standardised tests for monitoring the performance of students and of schools is unhelpful. In the past such tests have been more frequently employed to attack good teaching than otherwise. Students have come to see the test as part of the curriculum because teachers feel compelled to teach to them."

The flaws and contradictions inherent in formative assessment are many. First, research tells us that before children can attempt higher order thinking, they have to master the basics, including times tables, mental arithmetic and knowing the structure of a sentence.

As noted by Jean Renoir, when he asked his father the secret of his success as an impressionist painter, success was based on years of hard, often repetitive work in the academy learning the basics of drawing and perspective. Creativity requires structure and discipline; it does not happen by accident. As such, there is nothing wrong with teachers teaching and then testing whether students have mastered what is required; teaching to the test can be beneficial.

Second, in the real world there are right and wrong answers and consequences for failure. The next time you fly, pray that the pilot knows the correct way to take off and land. While there is some truth in the proposition that learners construct their own understanding of the world, there are also objective facts related to the established disciplines of knowledge that teachers need to teach and students need to learn. The next time you drive across a bridge, hope that the engineers knew and respected the laws of physics and that their understanding was not at the "beginning" or "emerging" stage.

While there is an element of truth in the proposition that students learn in different ways and at different rates, there is also the reality that those children who fail to master the basics in the early years of primary school are destined to failure in later years. A related point is that not all students have the same level of ability or motivation to succeed. As a result of never being told they have failed, many students leave school with an inflated and unrealistic sense of their own ability and worth.

Third, formative assessment is very wasteful, time-consuming and overly bureaucratic. One only needs to see the hundreds of vague outcome statements that Australian primary teachers have to monitor and report against to understand their frustration and despair. Not only does formative assessment promote a checklist mentality that weakens the integrity of particular subjects by seeking to quantify everything, learning is reduced to what can be measured, but time and energy is diverted from the joy of teaching.

Finally, one of the most damaging myths associated with formative assessment is that it is impossible, as they do in overseas countries, to clearly define standards, either by ranking students one against the other or by setting objective levels of performance that measure student ability. The result? Not only do students in Japan, Singapore and The Netherlands regularly out-perform Australian students in international maths and science tests, but thousands of Australian students enter secondary schools illiterate and innumerate.

On the basis that there is no such thing as pass-fail and all students experience success, underperforming schools are also allowed to continue unchallenged.

To date, states and territories allow failing schools to continue unchecked and parents are kept in the dark about how schools compare. The Australian situation is unlike that in Britain and the US where underperforming schools are identified and given additional resources and expertise in order to improve.

During last year's federal election campaign, one of the policies the Howard Government put forward was a return to plain-English report cards. Instead of fuzzy, new-age reports, students would be graded A to E and placed in quartiles against other members of the class.

To date, NSW, Western Australia and Tasmania have agreed to both aspects of Education Minister Brendan Nelson's request for plain-English report cards. While Victoria and South Australia have recently agreed to implement A to E letter grades, parents will not automatically be given information about quartiles. The other states and territories have yet to respond.

The benefit of the more traditional federally inspired approach is that parents will be given a succinct and easy-to-understand measure of student performance. Better still, where individual students are ranked against classmates, parents will be in a position to more realistically judge their child's ability and, if needed, to help improve performance.



Surprise! "Head Start" has not worked in Britain either

The first major evaluation of the government's flagship 3 billion pound Sure Start programme for deprived preschool children and their families has revealed no overall improvement in the areas targeted by the initiative.

Although some Sure Start schemes were successful, an independent study by academics at Birkbeck College, London - due to be published by the government next month - revealed that Sure Start as a whole failed to boost youngsters' development, language and behaviour. It also showed children of teenage mothers did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere.

The findings, obtained by the Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, represent only an early snapshot of the programme's effectiveness, and academics involved in the 20 million pound evaluation emphasise that they do not mean the scheme, which varies widely around the country, will not succeed in helping children in deprived areas in the long term.

However, the results represent a blow to a much-vaunted government programme that has cost 3.1 billion pounds since its launch in 2001 and is to be extended from the current total of 524 schemes to 3,500 Sure Start children's centres, one in every neighbourhood, by 2010.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have made much of the expansion, which was heavily promoted in Labour's general election manifesto in May. The scheme, influenced by the Head Start programme in the United States, is targeted at children aged up to five and their families in deprived areas, and is intended to offer a range of joined-up early years services, including high quality childcare, parenting classes, training to help mothers into work, health advice and a variety of other programmes according to local demand.

More here


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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