MICHELLE SOWEY. The NAPLAN persuasive writing test subverts critical thinking

May 9, 2018

The capacity to persuade is a vital currency: it fosters active civic participation and affords access to power in a democracy. Developing persuasiveness therefore has an important place in education. Yet not all forms of persuasion are equally commendable. Reasoned argument promotes integrity in a way that manipulative tactics like cajolery or disparagement do not. The NAPLAN persuasive writing test fails to give due weight to cogent argument, critical engagement with ideas or even meaningful use of language. In this regard, the NAPLAN persuasive writing test is gravely misaligned with worthy educational goals.

NAPLAN testing has come under frequent attack from various quarters. The criticisms in the Gonski 2.0 report are merely the most recent in NAPLAN’s decade-long history. During a 2013 Parliamentary Inquiry into the effectiveness of NAPLAN, the Senate standing committee heard that ‘the curriculum has become narrowed as teachers teach to the test… For example, some school children are spending a disproportionate amount of time learning how to master persuasive writing pieces.’

In my professional development work, I often hear teachers bemoan this pressure to narrow their curricular focus and ‘teach to the test’. Teachers are frustrated by their powerlessness in the face of the perceived behemoth of NAPLAN testing. They sense their autonomy being stifled by the high-stakes standardised nature of the testing, by the publication of results on league tables, and by those results being used as an unofficial measure of teaching quality.

The mention in the Parliamentary Inquiry report of excessive time being spent on teaching persuasive writing struck me as an interesting example of the widely deplored practice of ‘teaching to the test’.  If you believe, as I do, that advocacy and critical engagement with ideas are crucial for democratic citizenship and ought to be a central concern for educators, you might well assume that the teaching of persuasive writing merits a great deal of class time and attention. What’s more, teaching to a test is not necessarily a bad thing. If testing were appropriately aligned with worthy learning goals, teaching to the test would achieve the very purpose for which the system was designed – that is, educating students.

The documented narrowing of curricular focus suggests, however, that tests like NAPLAN are missing the point: they are badly out of alignment with our educational goals and priorities. When teaching is test-focussed but the test fails to measure what counts, no one can be surprised to find that learning is derailed.

Expert research and analysis lends substance to the idea that what the NAPLAN test measures is at odds with what really matters in education. The NAPLAN writing test was recently designated ‘by far the most absurd and the least valid’ of a dozen comparable tests, according to Dr Les Perelman, the author of a report commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation. ‘The marking criteria in general I can only describe as bizarre,’ Perelman said. ‘When I first examined it, I just couldn’t believe it. It’s measuring all the wrong things.’ Relative to the other tests Perelman surveyed, NAPLAN gives significantly more weight to the mechanics of writing (spelling, punctuation, paragraphing and grammar) and significantly less weight to conveying meaning. This is preposterous, as Perelman points out, considering that the very purpose of writing is to communicate ideas and information.

The calculation of the spelling mark is particularly farcical. For a student to earn full marks for spelling in an assessed piece of writing, it is not sufficient that all the words be correctly spelled; at least ten words defined by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority as ‘Difficult’ or ‘Challenging’ must also be included. This requirement compromises the communicative function of language in a way that is truly bizarre.

The implication of this approach to assessing spelling competence is that students are encouraged ‘to memorise hundreds of [sophisticated] words and then insert them into the essay, regardless of whether they are the most appropriate words to convey the intended meaning.’ Indeed, memorising word lists and giving little thought to the import of the words are explicit recommendations in the sardonic Guide to a top scoring NAPLAN essay which Perelman wrote to expose ‘the poor pedagogical practices that are encouraged by the test’. Other dubious writing practices rewarded by NAPLAN markers include frequently employing the passive voice, never using nouns without accompanying adjectives, and freely appropriating storylines from published works. Perelman concludes his Guide with the exhortation: ‘Never write like this except for essay tests like the NAPLAN.’

Perhaps the most ludicrous feature of the NAPLAN persuasive writing test is the choice of writing prompts. In 2014, the prompt Which law or rule would you make better in your view? was widely criticised, with even ACARA chief executive Robert Randall conceding that ‘the question may have been confusing for some primary school students’. In addition to being ungrammatical – a serious indictment in the context of a literacy test – the question appears to be an egregious example of ‘design by committee’, characterised by illogicality, needless complexity and a lack of unifying vision.

The persuasive writing prompt in 2011 was likewise poorly conceived. ‘People like to play with toys and games to have fun and to relax,’ it began. ‘Some people think that too much money is spent on toys and games. They think the money could be used for more important things. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?’ Given the vagueness of this prompt, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for students to respond in a logically defensible way within the endorsed five-paragraph response structure.

The prompt was not the only problem, however. In the marking guide, the top-scoring ‘exemplar script’ was far from exemplary:

Is Too Much Money Spent on Toys and Games?

It is important for human beings to set aside time for leisure and recreational activities in order to relax and enjoy themselves. However, it is not abnormal for people to become obsessed by such activities and spend too much time and money on them. As a teenager/adolescent, the reality is, a lot of time and money will often be spent on video games or toys for younger children. I believe that money spent on such things should be regulated.

As I mentioned earlier, it is important for us to participate in leisure and recreational activities. The reality is, many of these activities cost money, and that money is money gone from you or your parents/guardians savings. It is unnecessary for someone to purchase 10-15 video games when the person only really plays 4 or 5. This is ironic, because I, myself, am a culprit of such a thing, but I have learnt the hard way to spend my money more wisely.

Not only does spending too much on games and toys lose you or others money, it also makes you lose interest in more productive activities such as sports which keep you fit and healthy and expand your social networks. Although I and many others wish it was the case, playing with toys and video games doesn’t exactly get you physically fit, although some games have been proven to improve eyesight and mental ability.

Although I have talked about the costs that games and toys can incur if not used in moderation, I still believe it is important to allocate some money to such activities, to keep the person in a good frame of mind. However, spending too much money on these activities can also cause one to develop bad habits regarding how they spend their money as an adult. It is important for young adults to learn that leisure time is only one facet of life, and that everything should be done in moderation.

In conclusion, I believe it is important to allocate time and money to toys and games, however, everything must be done in moderation and it is an important role of parents/guardians to ensure that time and money spend on these activities is regulated.

This piece of student writing is inadequately argued and peppered with repetition, non-sequiturs and clumsy wording. Nonetheless, the marker commented that ‘all components are [structurally] well developed’; ‘ideas are carefully selected and crafted to be highly persuasive… [and] presented in a well organised manner’; and ‘cause and effect reasoning leads the reader through the text’. I am astounded by this favourable evaluation. I believe it justifies Perelman’s assertion that this kind of testing subverts, rather than supports, instruction in effective writing.

Jointly, the deficient writing prompts and flawed marker’s guidelines have dashed my hopes of the persuasive writing test being genuinely useful in assessing students’ capacity to formulate well-reasoned arguments. In fact, judging by the National Assessment Program webpage about persuasive writing, the quality of students’ logical reasoning appears to be valued no more highly than their facility in providing anecdotes, their knack for using hyperbole, or their command of rhetorical devices that appeal to the reader’s emotions. It would appear that students’ use of powerful emotive arguments is to be celebrated, even when they rely on fallacious argumentative strategies such as ‘appeal to spurious authority’ and ‘disparagement of opposition’. (Remarkably, both of these are listed as ‘features of argument’ under the heading Pathos – appeal to emotion in the marking guide’s section on classical rhetoric.)

School leaders are mistaken if they believe that the development of students’ critical thinking is a corollary to NAPLAN test preparation. The truth is that excelling on the persuasive writing test says very little about students’ capacity for reasoned argument.

The recent Gonski report recommends giving increased prominence to students’ acquisition of critical and creative thinking in order to prepare students for the rapidly changing world of work. The recommended development of ‘learning progressions’ – enabling teachers to make reliable, criterion-referenced assessments of students’ attainment in thinking – certainly sounds like a step in the right direction. Of course, educators will need to think seriously about what the attainment goals should be, lest we inadvertently cultivate a high level of proficiency in shallow or fallacious thinking.

Michelle Sowey directs The Philosophy Club and works with schools to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

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