ESSA: developing and scoping a test to explore scientific literacy and achievement in NSW
Volume 52 Number 4, Summer 2006; Pages 22–27
This year the New South Wales Government has introduced the Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA) for Year 8 students. Also known as formative or embedded assessment, ESSA is a form of assessment for learning that is ‘linked intrinsically to the classroom so as to provide feedback to both student and teacher’. Formative assessment contrasts to high-stakes testing, which is designed to rank students with minimal feedback. ESSA, with the associated Science syllabus, aims to engage with students’ interests and promote inquiry-based methods, critical thinking and first-hand investigation. Its theoretical framework is the SOLO model, which categorises students according to how coherently they understand a given topic at a particular level of complexity. The first section of ESSA is a set of multiple choice questions covering the four strands of the Science syllabus and aligned with the SOLO categories. Answers are marked electronically. ESSA also includes three extended response items. Both sections allow students to interpret graphs and experimental results. It is hoped that an online practical skills component of ESSA will be added in the future. Marks are analysed by staff in the Educational Measurement and School Accountability Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education and Training. Results are provided to schools through School Measurement, Assessment and Reporting Toolkit (SMART) packages. They cover individual reports to parents and to students, and include school-level and State-wide summary data. The individual analyses link a student’s mistaken answers to other questions in the ESSA test that raise similar conceptual issues, helping teachers to see if the student’s error is linked to a broader theoretical misconception. After trials in 2005 and 2006 ESSA has this year become compulsory for government schools. Non-government schools are able to opt in to it. Professional development workshops are being held across the State, and a booklet is being prepared. Teachers can apply to become markers. The electronic marking system makes it easier for teachers in rural and remote areas to take part.
Key Learning AreasScience
New South Wales (NSW)
2006; Pages 1–15
The Alliance of Aboriginal Community Schools is a partnership of 20 schools with mainly Aboriginal student populations in Queensland’s far north. Over 2004–2005, the author conducted a series of workshops for these schools on behalf of the Queensland Studies Authority to assist with the interpretation of literacy and numeracy assessment data. Literacy and numeracy were targeted in the study, as they have been identified as critical factors in facilitating post-school transitions for Indigenous students, as well as for learning about and embracing their own culture. The research was focused on aiming high, not just on minimising the risks of failure for Indigenous students. Simple Excel spreadsheets were used for data analysis, and sample spreadsheets are provided in the article. Using these tools, trends in the data could be ‘drilled down’ to uncover factors underlying the data. Discussion of the data was oriented towards improvement, not accountability. Overall, the data did not support propositions that literacy and numeracy achievement is consistently lower than average for Indigenous students. A substantial range of performances across all literacy and numeracy domains was evident, disrupting stereotypical patterns of achievement for race and gender groups. The differences between data for different schools in the Alliance provided a starting point for professional conversations about the practices which had contributed most to student achievement. Practices linked to success included team teaching and professional development that built on teachers’ existing strengths. While many government policies focus on ‘minimising the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, this research suggests that appropriate teaching and learning strategies can deliver outcomes for Indigenous students that are as high as for any other student population. Future research should focus on ‘what works’ for Indigenous students, and schools should celebrate high-achieving Indigenous students to raise expectations, provide role models, and enable their successes to be replicated elsewhere.
Subject HeadingsEducational planning
February 2007; Pages 42–48
Employing authorities should offer financial incentives to attract and retain highly accomplished science teachers. Teachers’ levels of expertise should be established through a system of professional standards and recognised through professional certification. ASTA and ACER have worked jointly to develop standards for science teaching that could be used for these purposes. ASTA reviewed international examples of science teaching standards. Its preferred model was that of the USA’s National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). The NBPTS sets out 11 standards for highly accomplished science teaching, which demand that teachers demonstrate extensive knowledge of science, science education and students; show high-quality learning outcomes by their students; and display a range of general professional attributes. In 2000 ASTA began to examine the application of the NBPTS to Australia. The NBPTS requires candidates to prepare a portfolio of five tasks, including a video of their classroom teaching, to demonstrate their effectiveness as teachers. They were also asked to reflect and comment on their experience. Individual portfolio tasks were trialled and evaluated by selected teachers in Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia. Participants stressed the time-consuming nature of the tasks but also their value for professional development. Five tasks were developed through which teachers could demonstrate advanced teaching skills in the Australian context. Candidates would have to develop a teaching program through which students learn a major scientific idea; show how they use assessment results to evaluate and enhance students’ learning; show other ways in which they probe students’ knowledge and how they adapt their teaching accordingly; show how they engage students in interpretation of data during the study of a major scientific concept; and finally, demonstrate that they have played a leadership role in science teaching beyond the classroom. Overall, about 80 primary or secondary teachers have taken part in these trials, and about 40 tasks have been completed. All participants agreed that the five tasks were authentic, accessible and feasible. ASTA and ACER have prepared a professional learning program, Relating professional standards to practice, based on the ASTA standards.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsProfessional development
February 2007; Pages 31–35
The inquiry-based approach to learning pervades curriculum documents in Australian States and Territories. However, a 2001 review of science teaching found that science teachers often retain didactic teaching methods and that many secondary students do not find school science relevant or engaging. The Collaborative Australian Secondary Science Program (CASSP) aims to close this gap through effective professional learning for science teachers. It applies the Curriculum Replacement and Curriculum Development models of professional learning. A meta-analysis of professional learning programs found these two methods more effective than alternatives such as learning through workshops and seminars, partnerships with scientists or action research. A pilot of CASSP took place in Term 3, 2002, involving 28 schools in the six States, 122 teachers and about 3,000 students. The teachers and students trialled a unit on Light, Electricity and Energy, backed up by PD and curriculum resources centred on inquiry-based learning and formative assessment. It was evaluated through teachers and student questionnaires and the researchers’ observations of four teachers’ classes. The teachers highlighted the stress they experienced managing classrooms during unfamiliar student-centred activities. However, 90 per cent wanted the project to continue. Many reported moving towards less teacher-centred methods in class. They preferred print to electronic resources, usually due to poor ICT infrastructure in their schools. About one-third of the students reacted ‘very positively’ to the science content of the trial, with half undecided, a significantly better result than in the 2001 national survey. However many high-performing students preferred traditional memorisation of content over inquiry-based projects. They saw memorisation as a more solid learning and as more likely to produce good grades under current forms of assessment. Disappointingly, there were not many schools in which the science department took part as a whole in the trial activities. This result may be due to the demands of the trial, and also to the ‘the role of the head of department’, whose leadership would be required to bring about such sessions.
Key Learning AreasScience
Subject HeadingsProfessional development
Project based learning
Volume 15 Number 1, 8 February 2007; Pages 12–13
Leaders from schools across Victoria have used common strategies to overcome crises. Strong leadership and community support were critical in helping Mildura Senior College respond to a car accident in which several students were killed. A detailed emergency management plan and support strategy helped reassure students, parents and staff. A ‘recovery room’ was set up where counselling was offered to students in the week after the accident. Advice on helping grief-stricken students was provided for staff and parents, while a talk given by police helped students understand the legal process around the incident. The school had to prepare responses to media inquiries, assist with the organisation of funerals and will provide further support for students called as witnesses when the incident reaches court. The school is currently writing an outline of its professional response, which other schools may find a useful resource. Fire- or drought-affected schools have also had to consider how they will ensure student wellbeing. For example such schools have had to limit to the type and cost of school excursions. Several city schools have decided to ‘buddy’ a drought-affected school in Loddon-Mallee. After finding out that their buddy school could not afford excursions in 2007, Wheelers Hill Primary assisted with fundraising. As a result, students have developed ‘social capital’ and are now more aware of others’ needs. Strong leadership and support from the community and parents helped Hurstbridge Primary School resume after a fire. Re-establishing infrastructure at a new school and replacing lost resources were major hurdles. The Victorian DET’s Emergency and Security Management Unit (ESM) assists schools in crisis. It provides a response and recovery service, prevention and recovery resources, emergency prevention guidelines and professional learning.
12 February 2007; Pages 4–5
The new sports school at Maribyrnong College is the first specialist high school in Victoria to be supported entirely by State funding. It expects to reach 400 enrolments. The school is part of the State Government’s plans to enhance training opportunities for promising high school athletes. Specialist schools also operate in Queensland and New South Wales. Unlike selective schools such as Melbourne High School and MacRobertson Girls’ High School, specialist schools are open to all students. The British Government plans to make all secondary schools specialists by 2008. At specialist schools, additional classes in sports, arts, business, technology, music, science or computing are run alongside the normal curriculum. Specialist schools in England are expected to secure $20,000 from the private sector, after which the government contributes $250,000 and up to $300 per student. Some educators are opposed to schools seeking private sponsorship on the grounds that this may lead to undue influence by business interests on the curriculum, introduce commercial advertising into the school environment, aggravate inequality between schools and disadvantage rural areas. Specialist schools in England have been found to improve exam results. British expert Jim Taylor attributes the increase to changes in the composition of the student body rather than the specialisation, but also found that specialist schools do benefit poorer students. Specialist schools in England that focus on business, science, arts and technology have achieved better student results than those targeted towards languages, maths, engineering or sport.
Subject HeadingsSocially disadvantaged
Volume 382 Number 8515, 10 February 2007; Pages 54–55
Approaches to the treatment of gifted students vary around the world. In the USA, where four gradations of giftedness are applied to bright children, the President has launched the American Competitiveness Initiative, which provides funding for 70,000 secondary school teachers to learn to run specialist maths and science programs for selected students. The USA has a tradition of programs designed to identify high-performing students and run suitable courses for them, within and outside schools. In Britain the government set up a National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth in 2002, which runs programs for children nominated by their schools. However, its success has been limited by ‘an egalitarian sentiment’ in the country. Only seven in ten secondary schools have nominated ‘even a single child’ for places at the Academy. Schools have now been instructed to provide the names of their top 10 per cent of students. Scandinavian countries oppose the selection and grooming of gifted children due to a deeply entrenched commitment to the values of ‘modesty and social solidarity’. In Japan all children are taught the same syllabus at the same rate during the compulsory years, with the quickest learners expected to help peers. The major cities in China offer substantial after-school programs. They are open to any child but demand high attendance levels. Statistics do not clearly identify the best approach to the treatment of gifted children. The performance of children in gifted education programs is affected by many external influences that are hard to allow for. The success of the egalitarian approach in Scandinavian countries may not be replicated in nations that do not have such competent teachers or socially homogenous populations.
United States of America (USA)
Volume 9 Number 3, November 2006; Pages 291–301
Policymakers in England are currently emphasising school collaboration as a way of increasing the pool of ideas and resources available to individual schools. The article draws on evaluations of two current collaboration initiatives: the government’s Federations program, and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust’s Achievement Programme. Federations are groups of schools that have a formal agreement to work together to raise student achievement and promote inclusion and innovation. There are currently 38 school federations in existence across England, varying in size and in the rigidity of their governance arrangements. A case study of one federation, where governance structures of three secondary schools have been combined into one governing body, shows the benefits that collaboration can offer. The federation has facilitated the movement of staff, enabling key leaders to be redeployed in response to emerging crises, increasing morale and disseminating expertise and good practice. Removing decision-making from individual schools has provided stability across changes to individual school leadership. However, there is a feeling in the most successful school that they have ‘given’ to, rather than benefited from, the federation. Although staff articulate a sense of moral purpose, this is unlikely to be sufficiently motivating to sustain their commitment to the federation in the longer term. The Specialist Schools Achievement Programme aims to assist struggling schools by matching them with more successful counterparts. The appointment of a ‘case manager’ is a crucial part of the initiative, to broker and support each partnership. The two initiatives point to the importance of flexibility in school collaboration arrangements, to accommodate the diversity of school contexts. Other important success factors include the provision of external support, the establishment of trust, the deployment of credible leaders in key positions and ensuring there are perceived benefits for all parties involved. The history and culture of schools is also important, and some ‘pre-collaboration’ within schools may be necessary before successful partnerships with others can be established.
Mum and Dad prefer me to speak Bengali: code switching and parallel speech in a primary school setting
Volume 40 Number 3, November 2006; Pages 137–145
Current education policy in England encourages teachers to build on and recognise the non-English language experiences of children from linguistically diverse backgrounds. This can only occur if the child is comfortable using their home language at school. A study of six children and their parents in two primary schools explored the children’s linguistic preferences. All six children had learnt to speak at least one other language fluently before gaining competence in English. The parents who agreed to be interviewed were also fluent in English as a second language, which may have slanted the findings. All six children were very reluctant to use their home language at school. Some reported that it made them 'embarrassed', and that they resented being addressed by family members in their home language while at school. At home, all the children spoke their home language at times, but many preferred to use English, even when speaking with a relative who was using the home language. The parents interviewed were happy for their children to speak English at home, and one actually preferred it. Children’s motivation to speak English may arise from their strong desire to fit in and not to appear different from the dominant culture. Teachers interviewed felt that non-English home languages should be valued in the classroom, but there was little they could do to encourage home language use when the child did not ‘want a fuss about it’. Multilingualism is complex, ‘far beyond the simplistic mantra of celebrating diversity’. As long as schools remain monolinguistic and monocultural environments, it may be counterproductive to draw attention to a particular culture or language in a class as a means of ‘support’. Reconciling the formation of a new cultural identity for children from diverse linguistic backgrounds with a celebration of difference is a problem worthy of further research.
Key Learning AreasLanguages
Subject HeadingsEnglish as an additional language
Languages other than English (LOTE)
The impact of the Higher School Certificate Aboriginal Studies course: Aboriginal students' perceptions
A 1998 evaluation of the NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) Aboriginal Studies course indicated that Indigenous students taking the course are more likely to stay in school, and are assumed to have stronger self-concepts and self-esteem. SELF researchers conducted in-depth interviews with seven Aboriginal students in an HSC Aboriginal Studies course at a large regional New South Wales high school, to investigate the factors that impact on Indigenous students’ self-concepts. Interviews were conducted by an Aboriginal researcher using Aboriginal English, to establish a rapport with the interviewees. Most of the students had chosen the course to learn about their culture, and to be able to pass it on to the next generation. They expressed concern that many aspects of Aboriginal culture were at risk of being lost, and were not available to them in their lives outside of school. The students indicated that the course affirmed the importance of their own prior knowledge. They felt proud in learning about the survival of past traditions, and ‘how far we’ve come’. They also felt that the class was a safe environment for them to express their Aboriginality, and enjoy being in the majority. They had fun in the course, but felt it was a ‘much more serious subject’ than others, reflected in their high levels of task-oriented behaviour. Most of the students thought non-Aboriginal students did not take the course because they were not Aboriginal, and might feel they ‘did not belong’. Many also felt that non-Aboriginal students were not interested in the course, or would only take it for career reasons. Despite indicating that Aboriginal Studies is important for all students, the students were quite happy in an all-Aboriginal class. It is rare for an Aboriginal Studies class to be all-Aboriginal, so this school provided a valuable insight into how Aboriginal students respond to an educational environment that they feel belongs to them.
Subject HeadingsAboriginal Studies
New South Wales (NSW)
Although policies over the years have made positive steps towards addressing the issue of Aboriginal education in Australia, Aboriginal students are still not achieving at the same level as their non-Aboriginal peers. A number of national reports have advocated the teaching of Aboriginal studies, particularly in the senior secondary curriculum. This is seen to be of benefit to all Australian students, but especially Aboriginal students. It is expected that providing a culturally relevant curriculum will encourage Aboriginal students to stay in school longer, and have a positive effect on their cultural self-concept and self-esteem. Positive self-concept has been correlated with academic achievement, engagement with schooling, and constructive post-school pathways. Conversely, failure on the part of education systems to ensure that Aboriginal children have positive self-concepts has been cited as an underlying contributor to the many problems Aboriginal students face in education. In-depth interviews were conducted with selected Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students taking Year 11 or 12 Aboriginal Studies in three NSW secondary schools to explore their reasons for taking the course, and their perceptions of its strengths and limitations. For comparison purposes, a short survey was also administered to a random sample of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students not taking an Aboriginal Studies course. (Note: complementary research by the same authors, involving a smaller sample group, is described in another abstract in this issue of Curriculum Leadership). Cultural background proved to be a major determinant in Aboriginal students’ decisions to take the course. They felt that learning about their culture would help them to pass it onto the next generation. Enhancing pride in their culture was also important. Students appreciated the atmosphere of respect in the class, in that all students, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, could have their views heard and valued. Students' reasons for not taking the course were most often related to timetabling, career aspirations, or lack of knowledge about its content. The research suggests that Aboriginal Studies has significant benefits for the cultural self-concept and school retention of Aboriginal students, and could be a valuable addition to HSC options for all NSW secondary schools.
Subject HeadingsEducation policy
New South Wales (NSW)
Volume 64 Number 3, November 2006; Pages 58–63
The USA’s current preoccupation with test-based school accountability, enshrined in its national education policy No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is based on several misperceptions about the role of assessment internationally. Much of the rhetoric portrays 'the rest of the world' as a single country with a higher achievement level than the USA, ignoring differences between other nations. It also assumes that other countries have devised a single ‘right’ way improve student achievement, overlooking the fact that many countries have a differentiated, decentralised approach to curriculum and teaching. There is no evidence to suggest that either centralised or decentralised educational structures have a direct relationship with a country’s educational achievement or economic success. The next assumption is that international test score rankings are a valid measure of education quality and economic competitiveness. In fact, factors such as poverty rates or societal values make meaningful comparison of test scores between nations virtually impossible. NCLB rhetoric also ignores the overwhelming impact of poverty on educational outcomes, making an unconvincing link between increasing testing and closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students. Most erroneous of all is the assumption that holding educators accountable with standardised tests is a widespread international practice. In England, Turkey, Germany, Singapore, Japan and China, assessment is primarily used to determine student placements within the education system, not for school accountability. Most of these countries are also progressing towards more flexible curricula, in marked contrast with NCLB, where the focus on testing is so strong that ‘the tests become the curriculum.’
Subject HeadingsUnited States of America (USA)
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