These are testing times

Will teacher tests make a difference in the classroom?

'IE' readers may recall that mid last year the then Minister for Education Christopher Pyne announced that the Federal Government would fund a trial literacy and numeracy test for initial teacher education students, Dr Stewart Riddle writes.

This test was one of the significant recommendations on how to improve teacher quality identified in the Report of the Teacher Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG). The review undertaken in 2014 by this advisory group was the 102nd inquiry into teacher education in Australia.

The test itself is the resultant product of the deliberations on how to supposedly measure that “initial teacher education entrants will have personal literacy and numeracy skills equivalent to those of the top 30% of the adult population”. This benchmark figure is part of the ‘standards’ required to be met by universities in respect to the national accreditation process for teacher education courses in Australia.

The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) designed the trial test which contained 130 items, including reading comprehension, technical writing skills, algebra statistics and geometry. ACER claims that the test has been designed to reflect the contexts in which aspiring teachers are likely to exercise personal literacy and numeracy; personal and community, schools and teaching and further education and training.

The first phase of the trial test was undertaken by 5000 volunteer student teachers across the country, with 92% passing in literacy and 90% in the numeracy component (or if you prefer the reporting style of some media, 1 in 10 failing the test).

Test to graduate

The second phase is the implementation of the test from 1 July 2016. The cost of sitting the test will be the responsibility of the students. Student teachers will be required to pass the test in order to graduate.

It is not yet clear how many times the test can be retaken. It is also not clear what universities will do to assist student teachers undertaking preservice courses who do not pass the test. It is clearly ludicrous to have students undertake years of study in teacher preservice courses, be they four year bachelor degrees or two year post graduate education courses, who cannot graduate because of performance on a one off test at the end of their course.


Media headlines in 2015 ran variations on the theme of ‘1 in 10 teachers can’t spell or count’ – predictable hyperbole from a hyperventilating mainstream media more interested in capitalising on moral panic than engaging in productive debate about how to ensure access to the best educational opportunities for all young Australians.

For example, The Australian reported that the tests would “weed out unfit graduates”, while the Courier Mail claimed that thousands of graduates are entering classrooms “without the proper skills to teach”.

What are the proper skills to teach, then how exactly do these literacy and numeracy tests assess those skills?

Will these tests do the job?

Of course, the first question to ask is what are the proper skills to teach, then how exactly do these literacy and numeracy tests assess those skills?

A quick glance at the website of the Queensland Department of Education – the biggest employer of graduate teachers in the state – lists the following as the skills and qualities of good teachers:

  • having a strong knowledge in particular subject areas
  • enthusiasm
  • being good at explaining things to others
  • ability to work in a team as well as using your own initiative
  • being a people person and enjoying working with a diverse range of people
  • good time management
  • having patience, a sense of humour and fair mindedness, and
  • coping well with change and enjoying a challenge.
  • None of these are assessable in a single test. There is a broader discussion going on at the moment about lifting ‘teacher quality’ in Australian schools, fuelled by the Federal Government’s Student First policy platform and an enthusiastic mainstream media. Some of the measures include raising university entrance scores, undertaking personality testing for teaching applicants, and ensuring that teachers are in the top 30% for literacy and numeracy. These tests are intended to ensure the latter.

    Yet there is little evidence of a causal link between effective classroom teaching and the academic performance of prospective teachers. It is also unclear exactly what this style of pre-emptive testing means for meaningfully deciding who is classroom ready and who is not.

    While it is hard to argue against having the very best and brightest in our classrooms, there has not been a convincing case made for how these tests will ensure that we produce competent and effective teaching graduates. Perhaps we should turn to the providers of initial teacher education to ensure that graduates are ‘classroom ready’.

    There are already robust accreditation processes in place for universities that deliver initial teacher education programs and moves are underway to better align these nationally against the AITSL professional standards as well as the existing state regulatory authorities.

    Take, as one example, a four year bachelor of education that requires preservice teachers to connect theory and practice in their coursework and professional experience placements. There are increasingly sophisticated literacy and numeracy demands placed on them throughout the program, as well as a range of professional learning experiences that cannot be pre-empted either through high school academic results, ATAR scores or standardised literacy and numeracy testing.

    Put simply, there is no way that a test can possibly come close to the level of professional learning that needs to be demonstrated by teaching graduates in order to pass their teaching degree and become registered teachers.

    This of course begs the question, why have the tests at all?

    Dr Stewart Riddle, Senior Lecturer (Curriculum and Pedagogy) Section School of Teacher Education and Early Childhood at the University of Southern Queensland.