A Year 1 phonics assessment is not the answer

27 September 2017

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

I am disappointed with the recent announcement that yet another standardised assessment is being planned for our students, this time Year 1. This assessment would be similar to the one currently being used in the UK to assess a student’s understanding of phonics (phonics is the relationship between sounds and words). The argument is that this test will allow teachers to more easily identify which students may need early intervention with their reading. The ‘test’ is a short spoken exchange between the teacher and the student, and very different from a NAPLAN test; still, if it is implemented, it will mean that schools will be subject to a national assessment program for Years 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 with state-based exams like the HSC in Year 12.

It is important for teachers to have as much information as possible about every student; however, commissioning a phonics test for every Year 1 student in every school in the country, and then using that to work out which students need intervention, shows a lack of understanding of how children learn to read.

Good teachers know who each learner is and how they learn best. With this knowledge, they plan the learning for each student. A standardised, high-stakes phonics-based interview/test can be subject to different variations and interpretations at the local level. I would have serious concerns about how valid the data gained from the interview would be.

In too many schools, what is taught is driven by assessment rather than what students most need or what they are interested in. Do we want the focus of our children’s learning to be on a test in Year 1? I can see the tutoring industry rubbing their hands with glee!

Even if it was an effective assessment instrument, the current proposal for Term 3, Year 1 is too late in the school year. We know from research that literacy and numeracy intervention needs to be early and regular. School-based assessments need to be carried out at the beginning, middle and end of the year to determine whether the strategies being used are working and each child is improving.

Australian schools are already driven by assessments rather the needs of learners. Millions of dollars are spent on tutoring clinics that are all about getting students to score well in NAPLAN and selective schools tests. This is not a recipe for an effective schooling system. Instead, let’s put our faith in teachers not a 15-minute phonics test, Our precious resources are better spent skilling teachers and developing and implementing strategies that will ensure that every child has the gift of reading.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta


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