In my most recent position as a Principal Network Leader my primary responsibility was to work with principals around school improvement. To lead conversations around school performance and strategies that might be adopted to improve performance and meet the goals and objectives identified in school improvements plans by way of outcome targets and key performance indicators. The conversations in schools focused on questions and topics such as; Where are the areas of that need improvement? How will we identify and prioritize these? How will we know if our initiatives are making a difference? Is the only measure of success improvement in student learning outcomes? What are reasonable milestones to show that we are making a difference? Among many others. As schools strive to answer these questions we also have the overlay of national benchmark testing in Australia, NAPLAN, which provides data on literacy and numeracy achievement for students in Grades 3,5,7 and 9. This data is published in the public domain along with other data such as the per-head cost of educating a student in the school. There is no doubt that there is significant pressure on schools and teachers to meet national benchmarks and for schools to show some level of continuous improvement. There is evidence that teachers feel considerable pressure to meet NAPLAN based targets with the inevitable focus more on improving the test results. The focus of PLC’s and collaborative planning teams in many schools has become more on how to improve the test results rather than on student learning. A common mantra became; “If we just get every student to answer one more question correctly then our ranking will dramatically improve!” and that is right. But will the student themselves be better off? Will there overall educational performance have improved in a measureable way? There is no doubt that NAPLAN data is driving some schools decision making. In schools that are data driven they make decisions on what to students need to know in order to do well on the tests. An English teacher for example might focus on narrative writing because they know that is the strand that will be tested to the detriment of persuasive writing. In other words teachers, schools and systems tend to focus on self-interest rather than what’s best for students. In schools that are data informed test results are just one more piece of information that can be used in planning for future directions. Teachers need to pay attention to trends and patterns that emerge overt time and these do not always arise from common or standardized testing. Indeed assessment data that schools teams focus on should be informative and test data is just one piece of evidence. Teachers need to enhance their conversations so they lead to greater levels of overall student achievement. Professor John Hattie emphasizes that teachers should see learning through the eyes of their students, and student should become their own teachers. In both these instances the basis on which future actions is planned is derived from information about student learning, attitudes and dispositions, and many other attributes. Evidence generated from common assessment tasks and national testing are on the whole necessary but are entirely insufficient in helping teachers and students make decisions about where they are going, how they are going and where to next with the students learning.(Hattie, 2008). So as he suggests in his book “Visible Learning for Teachers”, we need to be gathering information about student perceptions of what works best for their learning. Data about participation and engagement, about their desire to learn, about the quality of teaching and about the quality and relevance of feedback should all be added to the conversation. Such information will surely inform teachers not only about the results of test scores but also the dispositions of students that are such an essential factor in successful student learning. How many PLC’s actively involve students and parents in answering questions that they are encouraged to ask themselves; What is it we expect student to learn? How will we know they have learnt it? How will we respond if they do not learn it? How will we respond if they already know it? In Hattie’s words; Where am I going? How am I doing? Where to next? So for me teachers and schools must be much more that data driven it is much more complicated than this. There is no doubt we have to be purposeful and professional in responding to system, State and National assessment and reporting requirement and be mindful of their impact in a range of areas but we must maintain focus on our core business that of helping students engage and participate and experience success in learning. As Hattie contends teachers and schools must constantly examine their impact on student learning and make informed decisions on the basis of a range of evidence. High performing schools and systems will heed his advice.
Hattie,J. (2008) Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses related to achievement. New York Routledge. Hattie,J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers; Maximizing impact on Learning. New York:Routledge