Will mandatory literacy and numeracy testing for student teachers help curtail flagging education results?

Tess Gibney & Steph Nash

Published in December last year, the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report revealed that Australia’s education standards ranked only marginally above the OECD average. We ranked 13 in the world for reading, 19 for mathematics, and 16 for science. That’s a 17 per cent drop in standards for mathematics and reading in NSW since 2003, which some academics blame on low tertiary entry levels for teaching degrees in NSW.

According to a report published in The Australian, more than 2000 students who sat in the bottom third of ATAR scores (below 60) were accepted into education courses. Although this only represents 7 per cent of students accepted into education courses, Minister Piccoli has addressed the issue as a problem, having already raised the requisite for teaching to a three “band-5 minimum”, or a score of 80 or above in three subjects or more.

Earlier this year, Piccoli announced that education students would have to undergo regulatory literacy and numeracy tests in order to register as a teacher in NSW. These reforms exist as part of the government’s Great Teaching, Inspired Learning (GTIL) package, which was introduced to lift Australia’s sliding educational standards.

The debate surrounding entry scores into teacher education in Australia is not new. Central to the notion of teacher quality and the quality of teacher education in Australia, the role of low ATAR scores in falling academic standards in teaching has repeatedly resurfaced as an issue to be examined.

Amid concerns some new teachers struggle to articulate complex maths and grammar concepts to students, focus has again turned to whether entry standards should be raised.

Following a trip to Finland in January this year – where the education system is widely recognised as world-leading – Minister Piccoli announced one of the main factors damaging the status of the teaching profession was the “perception that anyone can get into teaching.”

Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, has refuted claims that low ATAR scores contribute to the teacher quality issue. Upon setting up a new Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group in February, Pyne said: “I’m not obsessed about ATAR scores. I think it’s a very blunt instrument.”

Educational bodies such as the Australian Education Union, the NSW Board of Studies and vice-chancellor of Sydney University, Michael Spence, however, have unanimously agreed that teaching is an “intellectually demanding profession” that should require entrants to demonstrate a “strong academic record”.

In a submission to the federal government’s review of teacher education, such spearheads of the NSW education sector assert that the government has a “responsibility to set high-standards for entry into the profession” (The Australian).

Peter Aubusson, head of the School of Education at the University of Technology, Sydney, said that although entrance scores to education courses at UTS were not low, he did not believe in conflating ATAR with one’s potential to succeed professionally.

“People with [low ATAR] scores often don’t enter into teacher education on the basis of ATAR scores; they enter into education on the basis of something else.”

Describing the reporting of ATAR scores as “opaque and ambiguous”, Aubusson said there are countless reasons as to why someone may have achieved a low ATAR.

“I think [in order to be a teacher] people should be able to do well at school; but that doesn’t mean they did do well at school,” he said.

“I know a vast number of people who matured and did a great deal [after school] … many people don’t perform well [in the HSC] simply because of experiences that happened during those formative years.”

By focusing solely on ATAR and academic achievement, government and educational bodies run the risk of discounting other features that make an effective teacher.

In an attempt to raise the standard of graduates from teaching schools across NSW, Minister Piccoli’s “tough” mandatory literacy and numeracy tests are designed to ensure all new teachers have adequate skills.

Though students would be able to sit the test as many times as necessary, Aubusson has concerns that generic testing may not be the answer.

“I think the [mandatory tests] are another thing we can’t be sure about. It’s a good thing if it means that it presses people to improve their literacy [and numeracy skills] … in that broad sense it is a good thing,” he said.

“However, it could be a sting in the tail … it may be that some people teaching in areas such as English or history in secondary schools, for example, may not reach that required numeracy mark. If they are teaching in areas where numeracy skills are only of moderate importance, it would be unfortunate to lose those highly capable, highly skilled people in their field because they are just below the bar on a test that’s been set at an arbitrary cut off point.”

Minister Piccoli plans to begin trialing the tests this year.