Standardised testing is a problem. There’s a lot you can read about that, particularly Testing Times: The Uses and Abuses of Testing, by Gordon Stobart. My particular bugbear is with NAPLAN, and Ian Hardy at QLD Uni has written some interesting stuff criticising that, too. Track down his paper, ‘The Logic of Enumeration’, or ‘Catalyst data: perverse systemic effects of audit and accountability in Australian schooling’, by Lingard and Sellar, for a detailed critique of Australian testing.
To my understanding, the chief problem that NAPLAN gives rise to is that what is measured and reported on from the perspective of teacher accountability is the thing that will be seen to matter most, and therefore receive the most attention from teachers. The reason that this is a problem is because the literacy and numeracy focus of the testing is remarkable narrow. Despite having a brand new, and quite good, standards based national curriculum, what matters most according to these tests are skills that receive footnoted attention in some cases (see http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Glossary?a=E&t=comprehension%20strategies for an example).
Another problem is that preparing for these tests is boring. Kids hate it, and quite rightly see no value in it (there’s nothing in it for them, really – it’s to keep their teachers and schools accountable, not give them any tangiable, transferable reward like an ATAR score, for example). I can assure you that teachers hate it, too. Sure, we can use the data to see how our kids are going, but we have many more reliable tools in our toolbox than standardised testing. Standardised testing is not objective, it’s not reliable enough, it’s far too simplistic (multiple choice reading comprehension? You’ve got to be kidding?!), and it is far too narrow. Kids should be learning critical thinking and analysis, collaboration skills, authentic problem solving skills and a whole host of other desireable 21st century skills (despite whatever the politics of that phrase might do for you…). These don’t test well. They don’t end up on standardised tests. They never really get the attention they deserve. Instead, our kids perform tasks on tests that they will never be called upon to repeat again, and only for political purposes.
As much as I would like to see the demise of this form of testing in Australian schools (and worldwide, but I’m a NIMBY at heart, so lets do it here first), I also doubt the current policy makers to make such a sharp U-turn on what is still a newish venture for them. So my current thinking is that the best approach to the tests, particularly the reading comprehension test, is to refuse to drill and kill, but to add so much sugar to the spoon that the medicine going down better be for diabetes.
I am aware that I need to work on my metaphors.
The standard approach to prepping for the reading comprehension paper is to use student workbooks from various educational publishers and go through their worksheets over and over again. Lots of reading short prose and then answering multiple choice and short answer questions. Drill the skills over and over, and kill any enthusiasm a child might have for reading.
The approach I propose is to replace all the time spent working through those workbooks with allowing the kids free rein to play through interactive fiction titles of their own choosing. There is scope within this to teach practical comprehension strategies, like those proposed by Scharlach in the START framework, but teaching them as methods for solving in game puzzles rather than scoring well on tests. The prediction, visualisation, inferential and empathetical skills required to score well in NAPLAN are the very same skills required to be successful in playing IF. And IF is a lot more fun. More resources on this approach, and others, to using interactive fiction can be found at Brendan Desilets’ excellent site, Teaching and Learning with Interactive Fiction.
More on this subject to follow over the next couple of months…
[Edit: Next article in this series available here: START with Interactive Fiction]