A standardised test for graduating teachers, informed by management consultancy firm McKinsey, is contributing to the crisis in schools. By Rick Morton.

Standardised testing is failing would-be teachers

The federal Education minister, Jason Clare, flanked by state and territory counterparts.
The federal Education minister, Jason Clare, flanked by state and territory counterparts.
Credit: AAP Image / Lukas Coch

The federal government is considering proposals to continue funding a beleaguered literacy and numeracy test for teaching graduates, despite mounting evidence the mandatory examination does more harm than good.

Since 2016, the Literacy and Numeracy Test for Initial Teacher Education (LANTITE) has been shoehorned into the final stages of university teaching degrees and, from 2017, failure to pass has prevented otherwise good students from ever becoming registered to teach in schools.

Each year, hundreds of candidates fail the examination despite multiple attempts – effectively invalidating the three years of study they have already passed.

Contrary to some interpretations, however, this is not proof the test is “weeding out” bad teachers. In fact, unlike the similarly controversial NAPLAN tests, the technical design of the standardised literacy and numeracy examinations has never been released.

The federal Department of Education, on behalf of commercial firm the Australian Council of Educational Research, which built and administers the test, has fought and denied a litany of freedom of information requests that might provide some insight into the value or otherwise of its 65 literacy and 65 numeracy questions.

“So, something like LANTITE is certainly having an impact – it’s stopping some students from graduating,” says PhD researcher Kyle Smith.

“That is having an impact on the teacher workforce at a time of crisis. What we really need to know is if it’s producing a lot of classification errors, which means false positives, false negatives.

“NAPLAN is a good example because we have public funding for it and it is used as a public policy instrument. And there’s a recognition, I think, that because of that a certain level of transparency is required about the technical qualities of the test, how it’s administered, and when and where students sit down to answer the questions.”

LANTITE exists at a rare confluence of opinion between the two major political parties: that the new frontier in education standards had to be teacher quality.

Julia Gillard set the scene in a June 2008 speech at the City of London Corporation.

“If we are truly serious about having the best schools, we need to have the best people become the best teachers,” the then Education minister said.

“As last year’s study by management consultants McKinsey … says, ‘The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.’ ”

That 2007 “study” by the controversial management consultancy also sang the praises of a US initiative called Teach for America, which attempts to move mid-career workers from other disciplines into teaching. Many studies have shown that these teachers, who received just a few months’ training, presided over significantly poorer student outcomes.

The McKinsey report noted that its success was “a matter of debate” but added: “Some studies have found that teachers working for Teach For America (a program that targets graduates of top universities) get significantly better outcomes from their students than do other teachers.”

Gillard funded Teach for Australia and announced it in 2009. The local operation counted among its executive team Eleanor Donovan, a former McKinsey consultant. While it is not without merit, it is expensive and has made only some progress in the 12 years since it began.

Incidentally, the New South Wales government revealed this week that it was preparing to pilot Teach for Australia for the first time in that state, despite departmental briefings last year warning “the existing model is not structured in a way that would work in NSW public schools”.

Alan Tudge, who went on to become Education minister in Scott Morrison’s government, declared that he “helped design the initial proposal” and continued serving on the board of Teach for Australia until 2013.

The McKinsey paper also popularised the idea that teacher literacy levels “as measured by vocabulary and other standardised tests affect student achievement more than any other measurable teacher attribute”. This was combined with the view, also in the McKinsey report, that top-achieving school systems such as those in South Korea and Singapore took only the top 30 per cent of graduates to turn into teachers. A later McKinsey report, released in 2010, labelled this strategy “top third +” but conceded its limitations.

“Paradoxically, US research on whether teachers’ academic backgrounds significantly predict classroom effectiveness is very mixed,” McKinsey consultants wrote, “and it suggests that merely sprinkling teachers with top-third academic credentials into our existing system will not by itself produce dramatic gains in student achievement.”

Early support by Gillard for the broad thrust of the McKinsey report led to particular enthusiasm among Coalition ranks, including from Christopher Pyne and Alan Tudge. Once in power, they went further.

Kyle Smith, whose PhD research looks at assessment practices in English pathway programs in Australia, says this focus on “teacher merit” has often been attached to the simplest policy ideas. “If you look at what happens in Singapore, which seems to be a really important reference point for education policymaking in Australia, their entire teacher training system is just so vastly different,” he says.

“Our government seems to have just picked the standardised kind of entry testing that they do in Singapore, and sort of adopted that. You know, kind of just taking that one element. Even if we had a demonstrably good quality test for this purpose our government still just picked one element and there is a debate to be had there about how sensible that is.”

In May 2020, consultants Dandolo Partners delivered an “implementation review” of the literacy and numeracy test to the Australian government, noting that it was “not an evaluation”. LANTITE has never been formally evaluated.

Dandolo was also clear in its report – which was released only as a result of a freedom of information request last year – that it was not “in scope” to decide “whether the test is the right assessment tool” or “whether the test is set at the right difficulty level” or to judge the “performance of the test administrator, the Australian Council for Educational Research”.

Nevertheless, the firm identified three key cohorts more likely to fail the test. Those were people with English as a second language, those without a postgraduate degree, and First Nations participants.

“Multiple higher education providers reported that the test was the reason that some Indigenous ITE [Initial Teacher Education] students were unable to graduate or left the program, and that this was a major loss for the program and for the teaching workforce,” the review says.

This “lazy attempt to emulate Singapore”, as Kyle Smith puts it, is having significant repercussions for the teaching workforce. In submissions to the federal government’s Quality Initial Teacher Education Review, the final report of which was released earlier this year, teaching students revealed the scale of the loss.

“I am a mature student (36) that started university in 2014 and spent 4 years of my life studying to be a primary school teacher. I was deemed a capable teacher by my peers and passed the full requirements of the course set out to me in 2014, which I paid for,” one student wrote.

“Two years in the degree I am told I have to pass an additional standardised test in exam conditions to graduate and teach. I passed the course successfully but failed my LANTITE exams. This test has robbed me of my dream career. I am left with student debt, anxiety and damaged confidence. I don’t even have a diploma to show for my four years of success.”

As another submission notes, the test has been conducted after teaching students have typically completed practicum experience and received praise or positive feedback from the schools where they have taught. In response to the above review, the Coalition government announced in partnership with state and territory ministers that teaching students will now have the “option” of sitting the LANTITE “before they commence their studies”.

The review also found that the test should be mandatory within the first year of study. “Culturally and Linguistically Diverse candidates or those who face other disadvantages should be offered foundation courses before they begin their degree,” the review’s expert panel said.

“ITE students should be offered experience in schools in their first year of study and short courses should be offered so students can explore teaching without committing to a full degree.”

Crucially, the panel also heard “loud and clear” from teachers that “many had felt underprepared by their ITE program for the practical aspects of teaching including phonemic awareness and phonics in teaching reading, classroom management, cultural responsiveness, supporting diverse learners and students with a disability, working with families and carers and working in regional settings.”

In August, new Education Minister Jason Clare met his state and territory counterparts to discuss the teacher shortage that is swiftly becoming a crisis. Part of the plan involves ministers agreeing to discuss more “targeted support” to help student teachers pass LANTITE.

The meeting failed, in part, to consider larger, structural factors that have depleted the teaching workforce over time, including: limited career progression; the devaluing of teachers by insisting they are not “smart” enough to teach children; overwork; stress and even housing affordability in major cities and population areas.

In its July report, titled “Building education systems for equity and inclusion”, the UNSW Sydney Gonski Institute for Education and 21 other researchers, principal groups, teachers and representatives from the Australian Council for Educational Research concluded that school education exhibits “many layers of segregation and stratification” and failure to account for this made it “impossible to identify the drivers of school improvement in different locations and better design interventions aimed at equity and inclusion”.

It did, however, find one potential indicator of future student success: the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC), which is conducted every three years in the first formal year of schooling. The survey assesses children against five developmental areas and identifies them as on track, at risk or vulnerable.

“Early data indicates that the AEDC is a predictor of NAPLAN performance nine years later,” the authors said.

Here’s the kicker: the very same teachers rejected by the cursory LANTITE test are likely also the ones most able to relate to the children who are not faring well developmentally.

According to the Education Department spokesperson, University of Sydney vice-chancellor Professor Mark Scott has been appointed by the Commonwealth to report back with “advice about how to improve teacher education so more students graduate, better prepared for the classroom”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "School’s out".

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