Why Test Online?
The biggest advantage for us is the tailored testing which will show us what our students can do, not what they can’t. We look forward to analysing the improved data that NAPLAN Online will bring.
The majority of the students actually said they enjoyed it. The tests were definitely more visually stimulating than previous years.
This was also mirrored in feedback from Year 7 teachers:
The students appeared to be on task and there was little required interaction with them once they got started.
Technical Readiness and Requirements
The success of conducting NAPLAN online greatly relies on having the technology and infrastructure to support it. This was something we worked very hard to have ready. The college invested in significant upgrades to WiFi capability across the campus to ensure a strong and stable connection for a large number of simultaneous users. Come test day, we encountered no connectivity issues whatsoever. The platform loaded quickly and was responsive between student and teacher devices.
From an ICT Manager’s perspective, and as it is with most things, adequate strategic planning, preparation and testing is required to ensure a smooth run. The main things to consider are internet connectivity (LAN or wireless), devices (BYOD vs school-owned), venue (shared hall or classrooms).
Despite an existing BYOD program from Year 3 upwards, the college selected to administer the test from school-owned and managed devices. This was to ensure a consistent and quality experience for the students. College owned devices were Microsoft Surfaces, which are a 2 in 1 device, incorporating a touch screen, a well-sized detachable keyboard and active stylus. These features were considered important for our students to have access to for NAPLAN online. We allowed students to bring a USB mouse if they wished, but found that very few did as the students were already comfortable working on touch screen devices. ACARA recommends student familiarity with the device of administration for the test. Our current BYOD program requires students to have a touch screen Windows device. Part of the decision extend our 1:1 BYOD program down to Year 3 was to allow our students to become familiar and feel comfortable with the technology. During delivery of the test, I was very pleased to see the children interacting with the touch screen, pinching to zoom in as required and making use of built in tools. Exposure to other online platforms in the classroom appears to have equipped students with general transferrable understanding of common interface elements.
It was pretty easy to do the test (on the computer). I knew how to go forward and back. It wasn't hard to figure out how it worked.
Staff and Student Readiness
There was a small amount of training involved. Coordinators were trained by ISQ and QCAA staff. We then trained the teachers administering the test at a school level. This was followed by a student preparation stage which was relatively simple and fast. This involved familiarising our students with the NAPLAN Portal. We were extremely impressed by how adaptive our students were.
Teacher Observations and Reflections
Testing online was conducted over two weeks. This was due to the number of school devices we had available to use at one time. Several teachers agreed that having the tests stretched out over a two-week period was quite disruptive and that they would rather have the testing completed quickly over the traditional three days. To do this in the future, we would have to make use of student owned devices, which would present more challenges in preparation and ensuring a consistent experience. Despite this feedback, general observations and reflections were positive.
I was unexpectedly happy with the whole process. I thought it was going to be far more painful than it was. When we had a technical problem it was easily solved and there were no major hiccups. I liked that it was paperless and that once the kids finished the tests, that was the end of it for the teachers.
I was impressed with the quality of work our students achieved during the delivery of the test online. Our dedicated teachers worked extremely hard at ensuring our students were familiar with the platform and that they understood their responsibility to pace themselves the same as they would during the paper version and not get ‘click-crazy’.
It ran very smoothly. Preparation is definitely the key. I think that using College devices meant that we had much fewer connectivity issues but it did mean that we had sessions running for the whole 9 days as we couldn’t run many concurrent sessions.
Thoughts on Typing Vs Hand-written
There continues to be much debate around students completing the writing task online. Perceptions in year 7 and 9 are more positive than in earlier years of schooling. Wendy Jurss, Director of Teaching and Learning, commented that student output appeared greater on the writing test than it had in previous years. With students in the high school now having taken part in a 1:1 BYOD program for the last 3 years, it could be suggested that a developing competency with technology contributed to this.
Year 3 teacher Robyn Behr is of the opinion that the writing test should remain hand-written in year 3:
Typing does present an added cognitive load to the process. The move toward online writing assessment appears to be allowing the results of prioritised literacy skills to somewhat rely on underprioritised technology competency. Despite there being General Capabilities relating to ICT skill and Australian Curriculum subjects focused on computer science, technology is still regarding as an "extra" in classrooms. Many schools engage with little more than a superficial implementation of technology in the early years of schooling.
If this is to be the future of NAPLAN and other external assessments, schools are going to have to very seriously consider their technology integration in the primary years, which is severely lacking in many right now. Insufficient exposure to technology tools could potentially hamper student ability to perform to their full potential in online testing. This is not a case against teaching handwriting or a call to replace books and pencils in schools with devices. Fundamentals are important and always will be. Similarly, this is also not the only reason for improved technology integration in schools and is in fact a very small part of the argument*. Nevertheless it remains a consideration that I encourage schools to consider as we move towards the full implementation of NAPLAN online.
*Further discussion on the typing vs hand-written debate can be found in a previous blog post here.
The Age of Digital Texts
A similar argument could be made in relation to the reading tests. Previous experience interacting with digital texts could be beneficial to students completing the reading test online. Year 3 teacher Robyn Behr highlighted a potential issue relating to the random assignment of reading material during the test:
There were six pieces of reading (each one at a different level) and students received them in random order. Some got the hardest piece first. For those confident readers the order was not an issue but for those students whose reading is average or below average it would have been very off-putting and potentially detrimental to their results.
Observations during the reading test did reveal some limitations of the interface. The texts were long and quite small on screen. Many digital reading platforms allow students to flick through texts as you might do in a physical book. A lot of students are accustomed to this. Students were zooming in on texts which raises questions as to how well they are actually reading the text or if they are even reading the entire text. There were several instances where students had zoomed in to texts and then lost the frame with the questions. Improvements to the size and presentation of digital texts on the platform would improve user experience.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Our experience with NAPLAN Online was a positive one. I believe this is greatly due to the hard work of our staff in preparation for the test and ensuring that the technology could support the event from an IT perspective. Student exposure to technology through our BYOD program appears to greatly reduce technology related anxiety and complications. There remains the question of exploring the use of student-owned devices in order to complete tests in a shorter time-frame. A more targeted and mindful approach to developing typing may enable students even more. Further development into the interface will help ensure students have the opportunity to achieve their best. Despite our feelings and experiences conducting the test itself, the outcomes are what we will be paying the most attention to. It will be very interesting to compare student data once it is released.
Special thanks and credit to the staff of The Springfield Anglican College who contributed their feedback to help inform this article:
Over the past two weeks, the students at my school have been among the first in the state to take NAPLAN (National Assessment Program of Literacy and Numeracy) online. Traditionally these are a paper-based assessment. Students completed the writing test on computers, as well as numeracy, reading and language conventions (spelling and grammar). I was so happy (and relieved) at how well things went. This event highlighted ongoing debate among teachers in relation to the impact technology is having on the development of student writing skills. It is a topic I have been throwing around in my mind for some time now and in this blog, I share some of my thoughts....
My experiences as a writer
I wasn't the best student in Primary School. I remember with clarity the ordeal that writing was for me. It wasn't easy. I was a weak speller and I struggled to compose writing that flowed. My mother would have to stand over me to get me to finish my weekly homework project. I remember rubbing out pages until they'd tear and starting pieces of writing over and over again until my hand ached. My handwriting, in contrast, was beautiful. A more gorgeous page of student writing would be rare to find and yet the minute you actually read it...well, it was pretty average. Many primary school teachers of course know that you don't judge a piece of writing by how it looks on the page, but I am fairly certain it helped me fly under the radar as a child.
This continued into junior high school until my family got a computer...and I distinctly remember things changing at this point. Composing text became easier. Editing and improving my writing was quick and didn't require me to start over. Spelling didn't hold me back and I learned new ways to say things with the built-in thesaurus. I could set out a few ideas and pad them out. Something about it just worked for me. Fairly quickly, my writing improved. I even started to enjoy writing! By the end of high school, I was an A student in English...who went on to be a teacher....and now a blogger! (That is not me saying that I am a good writer, just that I enjoy it more)
It is for these reasons (based on my own experiences) that I do not see technology as the evil that many others do. I do not feel that using a thesaurus or spell checker is cheating. My spelling and vocabulary improved with the help of these tools. I actually believe that the online Writing NAPLAN test should allow students to use all of the tools that a real writer might have access to in a platform such as Microsoft Word. If you want to test grammar, spelling or punctuation - do this in the language conventions test and let the writing be about ideas, structure and fluency.
I acknowledge that this may not be the same for everyone. I just know it worked for me. In saying this, I challenge those who are inflexibly single minded on hand written composition to consider that it may not work for everyone also. With so much talk about enabling learners, individualisation and differentiation why are we not allowing students to benefit from technology tools?
Writing goes digital
Looking towards the future, not towards a test
It is worth considering what we should be preparing our students for. Years ago, the ability to write pages and pages was required for students to survive standardised testing. With tests such as NAPLAN now moving online, it begs the question if this kind of gruelling endurance is required anymore. When I think about my day-to-day life, even working as a teacher I do not write out a lot of things by hand very often apart from the odd sticky note. There are very few paper forms I have to complete these days. I am currently working on an essay for university and there is no way that I am hand writing that! This is just not how things are done anymore.
It's not about one over another - it's more about the what over the how
I am getting over so many binary arguments in education - it's not always one or the other. With so much technology bashing lately, I felt like I had to make the argument for typing but the reality is that both methods still have merit and application. The most important thing is what is being written, not how it is being written. Different tools suit different purposes. Sometimes it is good to scribble some ideas out and to this day, I still love a hand-written letter. But sometimes when you are trying to piece together a more complex piece of writing, you just need the flexibility of digital text.
I'd love to hear your perspectives on this topic. Please leave a comment below!
The purpose of report cards
Communication about a student's development between schools and parents is essential. This is why we have report cards. Tracking student ability against a set of common developmental standards is equally important. The reality is that many report cards, particularly A-E grading styles, fall short of meeting their objective for a couple of reasons. The first is misconceptions about what those letters mean. Parents often base their understanding on their own school experience. Anything less than an A is not good enough.
In the Australian curriculum, the achievement standard is a C level, so getting a C means they are meeting the expectation. In my experience, this is not always an easy feat - it's an ambitious curriculum. The second hurdle is the educational jargon used in reporting descriptors. Often pulled straight from the curriculum content descriptor, which educators themselves struggle to apprehend at times, these words are often like another language to parents.
Could badges be the answer?
The question running through my mind is if there is actually a need to be ranking how well students are achieving something with a grade that can be highly subjective and carries understanding of a bygone era in education. Or should we instead be acknowledging each step forward as an achievement and as part of a continuous learning journey. Would a parent like to be told that little Sally can count in two to twenty or told Sally achieved a C in Number Concepts for the school semester? Similarly, would it even be that meaningful if a parent was told that Sally got a C in counting in two to twenty? What does she have to do to get a B? Stand on her head while doing it?
While there are some skills and knowledge sets that lend themselves to a black and white achievement, I can see an argument that this approach creates a finish line or would not allow for more complex application of skills. Instead, if you look at it more like a stepping stone leading to the next achievement, the potential for open ended achievement could be almost limitless.
Badges are nothing new
Recognising achievement with badges is not a new concept. Scouts, military and police utilise them. The concept of "leveling up" is not one wasted on anyone born from the 80's onwards. It's motivating. Imagine being a student getting awarded for what you can do instead of being told you cant do something well enough to get a certain grade. Imagine seeing the list of things you can do grow and grow, instead of lurching through your school years always feeling like you're not good enough. Naturally this may not be felt by those at the top of the academic ladder, but imagine the impact it could have on the lower or even mid-range achievers!
Minus the subjectivity
No matter how well your rubrics are generated or how consistent your moderation process is, there is always going to be a level of subjectivity in grading achievement. The good news in breaking down standards to mico-credentials can make it more black and white - you either got it, or you don't.....yet! The concept of not having something yet is popular among Growth Mindset advocates and Carol Dweck, leading researcher in the field of motivation and how to foster success. If badges were designed in a linear way, traversing grades, students wouldn't have just a year to achieve a badge, but could have continuous opportunities to achieve them. Similarly, students working beyond the achievement standard could be earning future badges.
Time saving and continuous
The need to report at certain times of the year dictates the timing of assessment, regardless of whether the students are actually ready for it. Most teachers will agree that generating assessment items, marking and collating data for reports takes weeks of a school term. Would this not be better used for learning? In a system where badges can be awarded as students demonstrate knowledge or skills, time spent conducting formal assessment could be given back to learning. A report could be generated at any time by producing a list of the student achieved credentials to date.
Our present reporting structures make it very difficult to report on the skills that are considered valuable to 21st Century learners. How do we put a grade against innovation? Creativity? Collaboration? Critical thinking? Instead, teachers could award a badge when they see evidence of it. An accumulation of badges could result in gold, silver or bronze badges in these areas. The potential in this space is exciting. Consider the other non-curriculum skills that could be awarded badges. Parents would be pleased to know when their child receives a badge in citizenship, resilience or self-regulation.
Our hands are tied...
Unfortunately, me getting up on my soapbox is not going to then cause a lot of schools to look at report cards and start reporting on student achievement using micro-credentials and badges. In Australia, our hands are tied. The National Education Agreement states that we must report against a five point scale.
Despite this roadblock, teachers can still try out badges in the classroom. Many LMS platforms allow teachers to generate and award their own badges. Making them specific to curriculum objectives may help students connect with their learning and see the road ahead.
Read all about my thoughts on teaching in the 21st Century, my experiences with technology in the classroom, running a Maker Space, launching STEAM and Design Thinking with students, coding, robotics and much more!
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