National testing goes international

Welcome to Australia, home to kangaroos, dingoes, and an increasingly vocal debate over establishing national education standards.

Aussies have been involved with this debate for quite some time. And because, like the United States, our governmental system is based on the federal model, and our constitution grants the job of educating children to the states, there may be something to be learned from our experiences. The first lesson is that rushing to do the job and executing it poorly is nearly as bad as not doing the job at all.

In the early 1990s, Australia produced documents that outlined what students nationwide should be covering in eight key learning areas. The documents were immediately and rightly criticized for providing curriculum descriptors that were vague, overly generalized, difficult to implement in the classroom, and politically correct. Moreover, traditionalists rightly chastised the documents for devaluing literacy and numeracy.

So in 1993, Australia's education ministers decided not to endorse these documents and the states and territories went back to, or refreshed, their own standards. Australia's first attempt at developing a national curriculum thus failed.

Today we're trying again. This time, Canberra's developing so-called Statements of Learning in key subjects such as mathematics and English that describe "the essential knowledge, skills, understandings and capacities that all students should have the opportunity to learn" at key stages in schooling (years 3, 5, 7, 9).

From Melbourne to Broome, and Brisbane to Perth, supporters are basing their case for the Statements of Learning on the fact that nations with high scores on international assessments also have centralized curricula and examinations. That's the finding of European scholars Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann, who evaluated the characteristics of countries whose students earn top marks on Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and found a credible connection between the two.

American academic John H. Bishop concludes much the same: "Analyses of three very different international cross-section data sets found that students from countries with [national standard and curriculum] systems... outperform students from other countries at a comparable economic development level."

Teachers in leading nations receive clear, succinct, and easy-to-follow road maps at the start of each year that detail what is to be taught and what students are expected to learn. Such curricula are academically rigorous and, instead of being a mile wide and an inch deep, focus on essential knowledge, understanding, and skills.

Supporters of national testing also appeal to commonsense. Instead of relying on school-, district-, or state-based assessments, whose standards vary widely from state to state, national standards ensure that students sit under the same supervised conditions and take one common examination whether they attend school in a trendy Sydney suburb or the country's Outback. Logical--no?

Well, yes, if the standards are well designed and executed. But the Statements of Learning don't look to hold such promise. To begin, the Statements do not constitute subject syllabi, nor do they include an assessment or examination regime. And they are not meant to supplant existing state and territory documents. Instead the Statements of Learning will be incorporated into local documents as they are reviewed over the next couple of years.

The Statements read: "States and Territories will continue to establish their own conceptual frameworks for English curriculums, and it is likely that they will include additional aspects of English." The hope, apparently, is that the Statements of Learning, when incorporated into the eight state and territory curriculum documents, will lead to increased national consistency in learning while also allowing local variation.

Not surprisingly, the Statements of Learning are less controversial than the first attempt at national standards and more likely to last. Not only is this a collaborative project, but it does not attempt to define the whole curriculum or impose a single examination regime. Therefore, freedom exists for local variation, and local bureaucrats are less concerned about losing autonomy.

So far, however, the model is so soft at its core that it doesn't provide enough curriculum rigor and structure. Further, given the absence of an examination system, there is no guarantee that students will actually learn what the Statements contain.

Still, it's a step in the right direction. Here's hoping that Australia learns from the experience of leading nations--and has the courage to overcome local resistance to national reform.

Kevin Donnelly can be reached at kevind@netspace.net.au.

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