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Using Fair Comparisons to Stimulate School Improvement in Australia

This post is by Barry McGaw.

Australia is implementing a national curriculum, customizing online student testing, and publicly comparing schools through fair assessments to stimulate system-wide improvement.

Australia is a federal system in which constitutional responsibility for education lies at the state level. There have been state-level curricula that all schools have been required to follow, although the degree of prescription has varied between states and over time.

The country had several examinations at key transition points in student schooling. These were at the end of elementary school and in mid-secondary school. There were also end-of-secondary examinations that provided a credential and played a crucial role in determining entrance to higher education. Today, only the end-of-secondary assessments remain.

By the mid-1990s, all jurisdictions introduced standardized literacy and numeracy tests at elementary and lower secondary levels in order to provide parents and schools reports on school progress. Interestingly, once all systems had system-level assessments in place, the Council of Education Ministers sought a national perspective on performance levels. For a number of years, the separate jurisdictional assessments were rescaled onto a common national scale. When that strategy did not work well, officials and ministers explored the possibility of using common national tests. Thus, in 2007, the first National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests were developed and then implemented in 2008 with the full cohort of students in grades 3, 5, 7, and 9.

Following a change in federal government at the end of 2007, a new transparent reporting on school performances was introduced for the first time via My School website providing reports on a range of schools characteristics, including their NAPLAN results. The first release of My School in January 2010 included NAPLAN results for 2008 and 2009.

The Australian media had long produced comparisons among schools that amounted to unfair league tables that took no account of differences in schools' contexts. They had done this with end-of-secondary examination results and, in some cases, with state assessments of literacy and numeracy. Behind the development of My School was a firm view that the only way to combat the creation of unfair league tables was the creation of fair ones.

Using data on parents' education and occupation an index of socio-educational advantage was created and comparisons were limited to schools with student cohorts with similar levels of advantage/disadvantage. The comparisons revealed marked differences among schools, denying those with poor performance the opportunity to blame the students and their homes when other schools with students from similar backgrounds substantially outperformed them.

Among schools with advantaged students, some were shown to be clearly coasting, with results well above the national average but well behind those of schools with similarly advantaged students.

In all cases, the schools with high performance can be sources of advice on improvements in policy and practice for others with students from similar socio-educational levels.

Reactions to the comparisons have, perhaps not surprisingly, been mixed. Some schools have accepted the evidence that more should be expected of them and have produced remarkable improvements either alone or with system support. Others complain that they are the victim of unfair comparisons, that the assessments will force a narrow focus on literacy and numeracy and, worse, on particular tests of those skills.

Two developments are intended to mute those criticisms. One involves the development of a national curriculum that covers a full range of disciplinary areas and 21st century skills. The curriculum sets out students' learning goals and is publicly available to parents. The curriculum is designed to be covered in 80% of school time. It also encourages local innovation and does not prescribe pedagogy.

The other development are the NAPLAN tests. With the national curriculum rolling out, the NAPLAN tests will be based more directly on the English and mathematics curricula and the literacy and numeracy skills. The tests will be customized to focus on individual students' strengths and weaknesses.

A rich curriculum with considerable scope for teachers' professional determination of pedagogy, tailored testing to better measure individual students' performances, and fair comparisons among schools to stimulate and inform improvement are the key strategies intended to move Australian school education from very good to great in the international comparisons.


Barry McGaw is a vice-chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne and the chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority.
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