Min­is­ter backs tests marked by ro­bots



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.”

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