Minister backs tests marked by robots
TEACHERS ‘USING SCARE TACTICS’
Education Minister Simon Birmingham has moved to reassure parents concerned about the shift to use robots to score national literacy and numeracy exams, saying the writing tests would be double-marked by computers and teachers next year.
Accusing teachers’ unions of “wanting to wage a scare campaign’’, Senator Birmingham said all the evidence suggested the statistical variation between computerised assessments was no different to the differences between one teacher to another in marking the same test.
He said any students undertaking NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) online next year would “have their writing test assessed by an automatic process, but it will also still be assessed by human marking as well’’.
“There is no automatic transition to automated marking,” he said. “This is something we are testing. We are assessing as to whether it can ultimately provide faster, better feedback loops to teachers than the current process is doing,’’ Senator Birmingham said.
The states and territories are working with the federal government to shift NAPLAN online by 2020 in a staggered rollout.
Only some schools will do the tests online next year, and Year 3 students will continue with penand-paper exams.
But the NSW Teachers Federation, a strident critic of automated marking, commissioned international writing assessment expert Les Perelman to review a 2015 report by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority into computerised marking or so-called automated essay scoring (AES) of persuasive writing tests.
Dr Perelman, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described the ACARA report as “so methodologically flawed and so massively incomplete that it cannot justify any use of AES in scoring the NAPLAN essays’’.
He said it would be “extremely foolish and possibly damaging to student learning to institute machine grading of the NAPLAN essay, including dual grading by a machine and a human marker’’.
“If wordy essays with long sentences and obscure vocabulary will produce high scores on highstakes tests, that is what teachers will be emphasising,’’ the report said. “Rather than improve the writing ability of students, AES may well encourage the production of verbose, high-scoring gibberish.’’
An ACARA spokeswoman said: “Dr Perelman’s research is based only on the early stages of AES research by ACARA and others, released in 2015. AES systems have improved significantly since this time.
“ACARA research demonstrates the consistency of scoring between the automated system and a person, and between two human-marking scores ... There was a 0.87 correlation between the automated system and a human marker, and 0.87 between two human markers.’’
John Quessy, the NSW and ACT president of the Independent Education Union of Australia, said a move towards automated marking of the exams undermined teacher professionalism, promoted poor practice and should be a cause of concern for parents.
Sadly, today there is too much focus on the utility of education and not enough focus on the need for a liberal education
In all the recent talk about education funding — school and higher education — there has been precious little discussion about the nature of education and the type of education a prosperous nation such as Australia needs.
We hear a lot about falling standards and our relatively poor performance on international tables. We also hear a lot about how a drop in funding will prove disastrous to our performance. And while there is obvious merit in such discussion, there is also a need to go a bit deeper to look at the underlying philosophy of education.
It is a truism to say that edu- cation today has to be relevant, practical, world-best standard, interesting, technologically savvy, student-centred, and so on. These buzzwords and fads are worthwhile in some instances but, more often than not, they are deliberately vague and used to avoid more deep-seated problems. Perhaps the biggest frustration with education today is a lack of an overarching vision — a goal.
We must start asking the more fundamental questions: Why do we learn? What should we learn? How should we learn?
The why seems obvious. We learn as part of our development as humans. To know more about things is a good and necessary thing. To be a good citizen, one needs to know about the world, society and where we have come from. However, education is more than facts and ideas; it should be about wisdom. Aristotle said that the wise person is the one who can order things together, and the more complex the thing to be ordered, the wiser the person. To understand how the world and the human story are ordered and to find meaning involve a lifetime of education in wisdom.
What should we learn? The basic answer is as much as possible. However, that is obviously too simplistic. Let’s take for granted that basic foundations in literacy and numeracy need to be laid and built upon. Let’s also take for granted that students need to know about the world around them: scientific, mathematic, cultural, historical and artistic. Once these foundations are laid, the ancient principle should be our guide: the examined life is the life worth living. An examined life involves deep thinking about the things that matter: the nature of the human person, why is there something and not nothing, and what does it mean to choose well, to choose the good. Sadly, today there is too much focus on the utility of education and not enough focus on the need for what was traditionally called a liberal education.
How should we learn? As all people of all times have learned — from others who have mastered some form of knowledge. Learning requires humility: I do not know, can you please tell me? The one who is a teacher is entrusted with passing on knowledge. So while educational techniques are critical, the single most important criterion for a good teacher is a love of learning. Students today are encouraged to be independent learners, and while this is a noble goal, it must be done incrementally throughout a student’s schooling. Encouraging students to find out for themselves leaves them open to a fragmented and shallow knowledge based on the first results from a Google search. This is one of the many inherent dangers with technology and education.
Another philosophical question for education is the role of the state. For most of human history, at least as it developed in the Western world, education was the function of the family and relig- ious bodies. This changed with the rise of nation-states after the French Revolution and gradually the role of education was usurped by the bureaucratic state. It is important to distinguish between civil society and the state. This distinction is important in all areas of life but in education it is crucial, especially at this moment in Australia’s story.
There is the tendency for a onesize-fits-all approach to education in Australia, in terms of schooling and in higher education. However, if education is to be understood in a more holistic way, we need a more diverse approach to it. This would involve the state to be more discreetly involved in education — to oversee rather than control, to enable rather than enforce. A more diverse education system would see greater choice between different approaches: private and public, the classical and technological, the liberal and pragmatic, the religious and secular, and so on.
The fundamental argument here is for a more liberal approach to education - an education that liberates from ignorance and provides the tools for a lifetime of learning and growth in wisdom. In his book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria argues that while vocational skills are important, it is a broader liberal education that will provide students with the creativity, clear thinking and communication skills needed to flourish. He stresses that the liberal in liberal arts is about freedom and generosity. Of course education needs to be useful but, as Cardinal John Henry Newman states in his classic 1852 work, The Idea of a University: “The useful is not always good, the good is always useful.”