Monday, December 17, 2012

Are We Headed for an Educational Disaster? Hardly

The Monash Art and Design Faculty at Caulfield...
The Monash Art and Design Faculty at Caulfield Campus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Associate Professor Deborah Corrigan, Associate Professor at Monash University, The Conversation:

The recent release of Australia’s performance in the TIMMS (2011) and PIRLS (2011) test results has sparked much media comment about what this means for the quality of Australian education.

The focus so far has been on the rankings in maths, science and reading and where Australian students fit on the ladder, but this is only part of the story.

Before we make dire predictions about what these rankings mean and what needs changing, some perspective is needed. We need to take a closer look at what these measures can really tell us about our school system - what’s useful data and what’s not.

Apples and oranges

First of all, rankings like these can be problematic if you’re only comparing apples with oranges. There is not much point comparing Australia with countries such as Singapore, Finland, Japan and Korea for example. All these countries value different things in their education systems and all are also quite mono-cultural in makeup.

For some countries, like Korea, these test scores influence educational policy. This has meant that essentially these education systems have grown to support students achieving high test scores. As a consequence, Korea has had to legislate for a maximum number of hours students can spend in “cram school” - extracurricular schools that focus on tests.

This is the path Australian education has not taken and it shouldn’t. To follow these counties, and allow test results to impact on education policy would be a mistake. We must remember, that these tests, which focus on content and associated skills that are common across different countries are quite narrow in their focus.

What they can tell us

But these tests can, of course, provide us with some useful information. In the most recent report, rankings have gotten all the attention, but in fact there was other valuable research done about what factors can influence student achievement, like family background.

Rankings, too, can tell us about how our students are faring in these areas, and what we may have emphasised or not since the last series of test. One thing that has remained consistent in all of these international tests is the low percentage of students achieving at the highest level.

These students are important as they not only start to achieve at their potential, but they are also an influential group in bringing the rest of their cohort along with them. This trend of under-performing high achievers has been evident in the Australian data for some time.

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