Year 1 standardised testing diminishes teachers' professional standing

The Federal Government’s proposal of a national Year 1 literacy and numeracy check poses a threat to the professionalism of teachers. Developed by a panel appointed by the Minister for Education, the proposal raises some serious concerns for the profession, Journalist Sara El Sayed writes.

When the prospective test was first announced in early 2017, our Union raised concerns as to the potential for the test to erode the professionalism of teachers: particularly questioning if proper considerations had been made regarding teachers’ existing operations in the classroom, their current workloads, and their available resources.

According to the Department of Education and Training, the intention of the test is to be part of an early intervention strategy that would identify children who are behind in their schooling and ensure they are supported.

The assessment would occur as a one-on-one interview between teacher and child. The literacy test particularly would be based on the phonics screening check used in the UK since 2012.

The current proposal, however, seems to be unreliable in regard to its inception and the practicality of its implementation.

Teachers already assessing their students’ abilities

Year 1 teacher and IEUA-QNT member Sandie Wands said teachers are already conducting checks of their students’ abilities regarding phonics, sight words, writing and reading.

“There is no doubt that the assessments we already conduct are more telling of a student’s ability and progress.

“Our current assessments are synthesised over a period of time and through various means to form a complete picture of each child’s level of achievement.

“One of the most disturbing things about being part of the education system at this point in time is that policy makers have lost sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings, and very tiny ones at that.

“Everybody performs better on some days than others and children are no different.

“They don’t like testing and it causes them a tremendous amount of stress.

“So many children – and teachers – are displaying signs of anxiety as they struggle to keep up with the demands of the Australian Curriculum and constant data collection.

“If you measure a plant every day of its life, it does not make it grow. It needs feeding and nurturing. Excessive assessment diminishes opportunities to teach and therefore learn,” Ms Wands said.

One of the most disturbing things about being part of the education system at this point in time is that policy makers have lost sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings, and very tiny ones at that.

Professional judgement under attack

Professor Beryl Exley, National President of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association, said while she supports the teaching of phonics as one part of a multi-part strategy for developing accurate, fluent and critical readers, what she doesn’t support is the public devaluing of the professionalism of teachers to make decisions about the form and timing of literacy assessments.

“Teachers are in the best position to know where their students are up to and which assessment needs to be called upon at which point in time for the students.

“When teachers are then made to conduct an imposed check at an imposed point in time, their professionalism is devalued.

“Systems are already in place to provide the tests for early literacy.

“Early years teachers have a very comprehensive battery of assessment items available that focus on early literacy acquisition,” Professor Exley said.

The check would involve children reading various nonsense words such as ‘yune’ and ‘thrand’ to assess their ability to understand phonics.

“We also know that a lot of young children, as they become readers, actually become very efficient fluent readers without actually having an apprenticeship in alien nonsense words,” Professor Exley said.

Flaws in the proposal

Professor Exley pointed to evidence from research, by UK Emeritus Professor Margaret M Clark OBE, developed specifically to help inform Australian teachers and system administrators about the UK experience with the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check.

“None of her work to date, or the critiques she calls on, were included in the Federal Minister for Education’s appointed expert panel report,” Professor Exley said.

Professor Exley said the contents of the report were not reflective of sentiments held by those working in the profession.

“The literacy experts on the panel were not representative of the voices of industry and nor were they representative of different schools of thought around early literacy acquisitions.

IEUA-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke also noted that there were no union representatives on the panel.

“Our Union, as the voice of the profession, was not included in, or given the opportunity to contribute to the findings of, the panel,” Mr Burke said.

Professor Exley said that the expert panel was set up to prove a particular viewpoint.

“The panel focussed on a check of synthetic phonics rather than literacy, with the view that a check of synthetic phonics was the only appropriate strategy,”

The expert panel was established by the Federal Government to not only advise of the development of the check, but also its implementation and rollout.

“When there’s a remit that has a fait accompli – the fact that the phonics check will happen – it’s appropriate to ask some serious questions about what the intentions of the panel are to begin with: to consider if such a test is appropriate in the current education system, or to advise the Minister as to how to roll out a test with the assumption that it should go forward,” Professor Exley said.

Ways teachers could be better supported

Mr Burke said if the Federal Government was genuinely seeking to support students who are struggling in Year 1, they should listen to teachers, and contribute to their support of their students.

“Our teachers are the real experts,” Mr Burke said.

Professor Exley noted the cost of implementing such a test.

“This phonics check is going to consume an awful a lot of money that could be best spent elsewhere,” Professor Exley said.

“Resources could be better directed at professional development opportunities for teachers.

“The teaching of young children is a very complex field indeed and we can always have better professional development within those areas.

Ms Wands said teachers still need additional resources to address individual needs.

“In the absence of specific learning needs, this translates to more school officer (teacher aide) time.

“In the presence of specific learning needs, this translates to more access to specialists such as speech pathologists, occupational therapists and psychologists.

“The money it would take to implement this testing could be better spent on these types of support mechanisms and resources,” Ms Wands said.

Mr Burke said what teachers need is for their profession to be respected.

“Just as a medical professional’s judgement is trusted and acknowledged when they assess a patient, an education professional’s judgement should be respected and acknowledged when
they make an informed assessment of their students.

“A Federal Government that lacks such faith in the Australian labour force is a Federal Government that is wilfully ignorant of the calibre of teachers we have in this country.

“Such checks of students’ progress is an insult to a teachers’ ability to do their job; an ignorance of the nature of early-primary learning; and an added burden which does not support the operations of teachers, but adds to the workload of a demographic of teachers already at high risk of burnout.

“Our students should not be reduced to a test score, and our teachers’ professional standing should not be diminished,” Mr Burke said.

One of the most disturbing things about being part of the education system at this point in time is that policy makers have lost sight of the fact that we are dealing with human beings, and very tiny ones at that.