Professor Richard Holden (UNSW Business) and Professor Adrian Piccoli (Gonski Institute for Education) for Sydney Morning Herald on 13 December 2019.
A "back to basics" response to the latest PISA results is wrong and ignores the other data Australia has spent more than 10 years obsessing about – NAPLAN. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy is all about going back to basics, but it is such a narrow response that it risks making the global standing of Australian school students in future PISA results even worse, not better.
Year 7 students in their NAPLAN test. CREDIT:ADAM MCLEAN
If anything, available data since 2008 from NAPLAN suggests that most student understanding of "the basics" has improved. However, as shown by PISA – the Program for International Student Assessment – they struggle to apply basic concepts to related problems that they haven’t specifically practised.
A further indication that a back-to-basic response is mistakenly narrow is the fact that high-performing students, who are showing a decline in Australia in PISA, don’t by definition have trouble with the basics.
To understand this difference, it is firstly important to understand what PISA is testing. As the chief executive
of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, has pointed out: “PISA does not assess students’ abilities to recall facts or basic literacy and numeracy skills. Instead, it assesses the ability to transfer and apply learning to new situations and unseen problems. This requires an understanding of fundamental concepts and principles, as well as the ability to think.”
NAPLAN, by contrast, does test basic literacy and numeracy. However, unlike our declining PISA performance, there has been no downward slide in NAPLAN results. If anything, the year 3 NAPLAN cohort from 2013 did better than their counterparts from five years earlier.
Whatever the reason for the decline in PISA results, it is not mirrored by a corresponding decline in NAPLAN scores for the same cohorts of students. So what is going on?
One explanation is that for 10 years Australia has focused on basic skills through the obsession with NAPLAN and that this has come at the expense of teaching more practical applied skills and problem solving.
No one should really be surprised by this disconnect between basic-skills abilities measured by NAPLAN results and the broader, higher-order skills tested by PISA.
The warning about the way NAPLAN "narrows the curriculum" and the adverse effects of "teaching to the test" began when NAPLAN and the MySchool website were first floated as an idea. NAPLAN and the narrow range of knowledge and skills it tests is what gets noticed in Australia, so it’s what gets done.
There can be no dispute that students need to master basic literacy and numeracy skills and that we should do better at the basics. Without those skills they have no foundation for more advanced learning.
For 10 years NAPLAN has done exactly what basic economic tells us it will – created high-powered incentives for schools to make sure students are equipped to do well in NAPLAN tests.
The MySchool website makes school-level NAPLAN results readily available and highly salient. Principals and teachers naturally respond to those incentives for fear of losing good students to other schools and to satisfy the demands of education regulators and parents.
Furthermore, governments measure their own performance in education based on NAPLAN results and look
for every possible policy option to improve those results.
Taken together, the competing trends in NAPLAN and PISA results suggest we need to better transition students from basic skills development into higher order conceptual skills and put the necessary curriculum and resources behind that transition.
One option to consider as part of the current review of NAPLAN is to continue the literacy and numeracy sample-based "basic skills test" in years 3 and 5 and move to more complex problem-solving, PISA-style, sample-based tests in years 7 and 9.
We set the bar too low for ourselves if the main policy response to PISA is "back to basics". Australia needs to be more aspirational than to simply measure our system on how well our children read and write. We absolutely have to expect that as a baseline.
If we want to focus on those higher level, applied skills that students really need when they leave school, then the curriculum and the testing regimes that surround it need to focus on those skills.
In an increasingly globalised and automated world, problem-solving ability is the scarce skill. It is the skill that will generate the long-run productivity growth required to maintain high standards of living.
The good news for Australia is that we don’t need to make a choice between "basic skills" and
"higher-order skills". We are more than smart enough to have both.
Richard Holden is professor of economics at UNSW Business School and Adrian Piccoli is director
of the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW, and Professor of Practice in the School of