Teacher learning, not student test results, should be a national priority for Australia

By Ian Hardy

Ongoing professional development of teachers is vital for the successful education of our children. At present, teacher learning is not given the sort of attention it deserves by governments in Australia. Our teachers are finding themselves increasingly reacting to a plethora of national, and other, tests. What they are ‘learning’ in the process is that tests and testing matters because school results have to ‘look good’ at school and system level. This can narrow the focus of the development of teacher professional skills and knowledge across a whole school, and, indeed, whole systems.

Substantive teacher learning (that is teacher learning that contributes to student learning) is essential for fostering students’ academic and social development and learning. Much is known and has been written about the sorts of ongoing professional learning that are necessary to cultivate productive learning on the part of teachers, for students. Such learning should be ongoing, systematic, shared with other teachers in a public but supportive context, build upon teachers’ understandings of students’ current needs (not just academic but also socio-emotional and personal needs) and designed to extend students’ understandings in robust ways.

However, teachers’ learning is also influenced by the broader political and policy conditions within which they work. Some of these influences, such as having to constantly respond to standardised test results, can be counter-productive. They make it difficult for teachers to sustain attention to more long-term approaches focused on students’ actual work. This actual work includes students’ bookwork, extended assignment work, and extended responses in curriculum-based tests and other forms of assessment.

In Australia, the problem is most obvious in relation to national literacy and numeracy testing practices associated with NAPLAN (National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy). On the recent 10th anniversary of NAPLAN, we witnessed debates at the highest levels of government about the efficacy or otherwise of the program. Education Minister of NSW, Rob Stokes, (NSW is Australia’s most populous state) criticised the value and benefit of the national testing program, arguing for it to be replaced. The criticism was timely because reforms to schooling recently recommended to the Australian Government emphasised smaller, more ‘low-key’, modes of assessment in schools. Minister Stokes’ criticisms led to the federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, defending NAPLAN as a necessary vehicle to inform parents about students’ progress.

The ‘problem’, however, is not just isolated to practices around NAPLAN. Australian schools use other forms of quantified, standardized measures of learning such as Progressive Assessment Tests (PAT-tests) in reading, mathematics and vocabulary. There is also increased use and reliance on various ‘levelled’ readers as markers of students’ achievement. (Levelled readers are a series of reading books written to a formula of increasing difficulty usually from level 1 to level 30, with level 30 considered appropriate for students around 12 years of age). Schools often use these readers as a ‘quick’ way to ascertain whether students appear to be reading at year level, although they can be very limited in their content and foci, and do not necessarily serve as the best resources to inform teachers about students’ actual comprehension and reading fluency.

Of course all of these forms of data can be useful to indicate where students need further assistance and opportunities for development and learning. However, in a broader context in which national testing practices are simultaneously deployed for accountability purposes (most obviously through the ‘MySchool’ website), the more educative functions of using the data can be significantly reduced.

Increasing concerns about performance for performance sake can effectively cruel the potential of this array of tests and instruments to be genuinely educative.

Nevertheless, teachers are constantly creative in their efforts to learn from such markers of student learning. My research shows how teachers endeavour to use standardised data in conjunction with a much broader and more substantive array of student ‘data’ they collect during their everyday practices. This broader array of data includes extensive examples of students’ work, including various samples of students’ bookwork, as well as responses to formative and summative assessment tasks. Formative assessment tasks are designed to check on students’ understanding on an ongoing basis in class. Summative tasks are used to measure students’ understandings, often at the end of a unit of work, and for more formal reporting purposes.

Useful data can also include teachers’ notes about student academic progress more generally, their level of attentiveness in class, as well as about their well-being and social engagement with their peers, and other adults in the school. Seeking to work productively with a wide and deep array of data, beyond simply standardized measures, is the key to fostering substantive teacher learning for student learning.

So what can school authorities and teachers do about this?

First, school system administrators and school principals should actively talk about the need for teachers to collect and collate a wide variety of data, beyond simply test scores. They need to ‘give permission’ to teachers to be doing more than simply responding to the latest set of NAPLAN scores, and areas in which students fall short.

This will help build cultures in schools that ensure data are diverse, rich sources of evidence of students’ learning. If we are serious about encouraging the sorts of complex skill development and empathetic social capacities and understandings that are often promoted as the necessary 21st Century skills of the future, we need to encourage teachers to look for and promote the development of a wide array of understandings about student learning. This, in turn, will assist teachers to provide learning opportunities to help ‘future-proof’ students for an increasingly fluid job market, and cultivate the sorts of civic capacities so necessary in and for a genuinely inclusive, sustainable and global world.

Teachers can help to bring such a system of rich diverse data into being by insisting that principals, system administrators, parents and members of the wider community take a much more active role in thinking about what successful student learning actually looks like. Success includes the ability to communicate with others from backgrounds and cultural groups different from one’s own, having the confidence and resilience to keep striving for improvement and success in the face of adversity, and developing a sufficiently robust moral compass as a bulwark to avoid potentially exploitative circumstances in which students of today – citizens of tomorrow – might find themselves.

Such capacities are reflected in what the Australian Curriculum refers to as ‘general capabilities’, which were strongly supported in the recent Gonski school reform recommendations (Through Growth to Achievement). The capabilities include and emphasise strong literacy, numeracy and ICT capabilities, but significantly are not limited to these alone.

Governments need to more actively refocus policy upon a much richer conception of teacher and student learning. We need to move away from constantly reporting and comparing test results to providing and advocating for a wide range of substantive teacher professional development opportunities for all Australian teachers. Our children’s futures depend on us getting this right, just as we will surely depend upon them for our future well-being.

If you’d like to read more about these issues, please see my paper Governing teacher learning: Understanding teachers’ compliance with and critique of standardization in the Journal of Education Policy.

Teachers might also be interested in an associated article I recently wrote for the NSW Teachers Federation Journal of Professional Learning: Is Standardisation Governing Teacher Learning? Understanding Teachers’ Compliance and Critique

Dr Ian Hardy is Senior Lecturer, and Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Dr Hardy researches and teaches in the areas of educational policy and politics, with a particular focus upon the nature of teachers’ work and learning. As an ARC Future Fellow (2015-2018), Dr Hardy is currently undertaking full-time research into how policy support for curricula reform influences teacher learning in Queensland, within a broader global policy context. At the same time, Dr Hardy is exploring how concurrent policy reform in Scandinavian (Finland and Sweden) and North American (Ontario and Connecticut) contexts is currently constituted, and influencing practice.

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3 thoughts on “Teacher learning, not student test results, should be a national priority for Australia

  1. Sue Burvill-Shaw says:

    Very interesting and worthwhile. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Les Treichel says:

    Dr Ian Hardy for Federal Minister for Education! A ” new broom” is urgently required to sweep away “Testucation” and clear the corridors for the return of real “Education” …. education delivered by a workforce polished and refined through access to and participation in on-going and purposeful professional development and in-service initiatives designed to nurture and inculcate “BEST PRACTICE TEACHING”! Costly? Well may you ask! The answer is simple…… Extinguish NAPLAN and raid the purse it is squandering!

  3. Ian Hardy says:

    Thanks for your comments, Sue and Les. Providing adequate resourcing for teachers’ initial and continuing education certainly reaps invaluable dividends for the students of the teachers involved, and ultimately, the wider society. Ian.

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