Sharing good practice: Gonski and assessment of student learning

The Gonski report Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools proposes a ‘set of impactful and practical reforms that build on existing improvement efforts'. It notes that many school leaders and educators are already focusing on these areas and using evidence-informed strategies.

In a fortnightly series, Teacher has been taking a closer look at some of the Gonski recommendations and highlighting existing work happening in Australian schools. This final instalment focuses on assessment of student learning.

To support teachers in understanding and meeting individual student needs and focus on learning growth, the Gonski report recommends the development of a new online assessment tool.

It says the tool should report against well-developed learning progressions underpinning the Australian Curriculum, which are independent of year group or age, and provide a common language and understanding of the best way to support and build on a student's current level of achievement.

‘The tool would assist them to readily identify the stage of learning a student has reached and to provide a choice of possible appropriate interventions from which the teacher could select to provide the next challenging but achievable learning task.'

Recommendation 11: Develop a new online and on demand student learning assessment tool based on the Australian Curriculum learning progressions.

In its submission to the review, the Australian Education Union says: ‘Assessment is an intrinsic element of good teaching practice and should provide teachers, students and parents with information about the progress and achievements of students.'

The report discusses how assessment can be used formatively by teachers to assess student knowledge, develop individual learning plans, set achievement goals and monitor learning progress (intervening where necessary). It proposes a new assessment tool for use across multiple learning areas where teachers could select assessment items to identify a student's level of attainment and personalise the next teaching and learning steps.

The review panel says ‘few assessment tools or tests currently exist in Australia to measure an individual student's learning growth over time'.

What's happening in Australian schools?

In his Research Conference conversation with John Hattie, ACER CEO and Teacher columnist Professor Geoff Masters AO argued against a single tool. ‘Once you have developed a map of learning within a learning area, you can then use any number of assessment instruments or assessment processes (as long as they meet quality criteria) to establish where students are in their learning.' He added schools are already using a number of assessment tools. ‘More than 7000 Australian primary and secondary schools are registered to use the PAT tests online, for example, out of 9444 schools … so that's a pretty significant proportion.'

There are multiple ways to assess where students are in their learning, including informal teacher observations and conversations, quick quizzes and exit slips, and through student reflections and feedback.

Canning Vale Primary School in Perth, Western Australia, uses multiple forms of assessment to build a picture of learning progress at all levels – from individual students, to class, year group and whole school.

‘In school planning, you should never just rely on one assessment. You have to make sure all bases are covered and you have a very good idea of what level your students are at,' Deputy Principal Kevin Hogg tells Teacher. ‘What we wanted to make sure at Canning Vale Primary School is that we are progressing the students – whether or not they're at an ‘A' grade or an ‘E' grade, as long as they're progressing – then we can actually plan around that.

‘In terms of school progress, we look at NAPLAN data, PAT assessments and the Brightpath moderation tool and use those for school planning. From a classroom point of view it varies and it depends on the class … peer and benchmarking, anecdotal notes, we have a few little maths assessments (one minute maths on mental maths, for example).

‘The main aim is that, from a school point of view, there are some assessments that we require, and from a teacher point of view we want to use quick and informative assessments that don't take up too much of the teachers' time, but at the same time provide the data that they can use for planning.'

Hogg says it's important to involve students, and parents, in the process. ‘The school has had a very positive culture about individual goal setting and planning for quite a while. It has done something called a “three-way conference”, where it's about sitting down with parents and students and the teacher and, depending on the age of the student, having the students come up with goals and targets. Then these targets are reviewed on a term by term basis.

‘The kids have to be involved, they have to understand the reason behind having those targets and setting those goals, because they need to celebrate when they make it there and also have something to work towards.'

Communicating individual learning growth and progress is another part of the jigsaw. ‘In terms of grades and parent understanding, PAT is just another form of assessment that we use. And it's about upskilling the parents, but also the staff and students – it's about trying to focus on the progress.'

Supporting teachers

Dr Sandy Heldsinger has led the development of the educational assessment software Brightpath and is co-author of What Teachers Need to Know about Assessment and Reporting. She says the Gonski recommendations on assessment provide a great opportunity, but the challenge is to ensure what is developed leads to effective teaching.

Heldsinger believes the greatest need is in supporting teachers with analysing student work in detail. ‘For the past two decades we have provided teachers with broad descriptors of learning, be it the National Profiles, National Benchmark Standards, Outcomes Statements, the Australian Curriculum, Achievement Standards, Grading and so on,' she tells Teacher. ‘These documents do not help teachers understand small increments in learning.

‘Why do we need to support teachers with analysing student work? Research undertaken in the US showed that highly effective teachers frequently spend time analysing student work closely and providing feedback. Whilst this seems a fairly obvious finding, the reality is that our curriculum documents do not promote this type of activity.

‘Take grading, for example. This is most probably the most common assessment activity in schools – or it's certainly the activity that schools pay most attention to. In Western Australia there are approximately 30 000 students at a year level. We can estimate that approximately 10 000 students will be graded as C. The grades, therefore, provide very coarse-grained information about student learning.

‘Compare the grading documents with what teachers need to know to be effective teachers of writing. They need to know how to teach students to write cohesively, the factors that contribute to a cohesive text so that they can teach their students how to maintain tense and point of view across the text, how to select the most appropriate conjunctions and connectives to clearly convey the relationship between their ideas, how to reference correctly (these, those; the boy, he), how to select words to enhance the cohesiveness of their text and how to craft paragraphs effectively.

‘But there is still more – teachers also need help in understanding how student writing develops. For early writers the focus of the teaching may need to be on teaching students how to select details that are relevant to their writing. In slightly more advanced writing the focus might be on teaching students how to use temporal connectives, and in more advanced writing they may need to teach students how to position dependent clauses correctly. And this is only one aspect of writing!'

The Gonski review panel's findings and recommendations on assessment, and references to supporting research, can be found in Chapter Three (3.2) of the report. A copy of the full report is available to download by clicking on the link.


Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2018). Through Growth to Achievement: Report of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra.

All articles in this series:

Part 1 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and school partnerships
Part 2 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and effective induction processes
Part 3 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and encouraging student voice
Part 4 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and quality assurance processes
Part 5 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and individual student achievement
Part 6 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and evidence-based practice
Part 7 – Sharing good practice: Gonski and professional collaboration