Year 1 literacy and numeracy checks

A government advisory panel has recommended the introduction of teacher-administered national literacy and numeracy checks in Year 1 as a way of identifying students who need additional support.

The checks, described as ‘light touch' assessments, would measure key foundation skills and knowledge and would be aligned to the Australian Curriculum. The focus would be on phonics in literacy and number sense and position/location in numeracy.

In its report to Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, the advisory panel says while the existing UK Phonics Screening Check could be adapted for use in Australian schools, a new tool should be developed for the numeracy assessment. The proposed timeline for a national rollout is Term 3, 2018 for literacy and Term 3, 2019 for numeracy.

During stakeholder consultations, educators raised concerns the assessments would be an extra burden to teachers already struggling with a hefty workload, lead to a possible narrowing of the curriculum, and cause stress for students and parents. The panel says the Year 1 checks should not be ‘high stakes' assessments or linked to progression of year level. ‘[It] is important to make clear that the Year 1 check is not intended to be NAPLAN for Year 1 students. Rather it is viewed as two brief checks in literacy and numeracy delivered by the classroom teacher to each Year 1 student. It is also important that governments agree not to publish individual school results and that any reporting of results should be limited to national and state and territory levels.'

The six-member advisory panel was chaired by Dr Jennifer Buckhingam, Education Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of FIVE from FIVE Project. The remaining members were: Mandy Nayton CEO of the Dyslexia SPELD Foundation; Professor Pamela Snow, Head of the La Trobe Rural Health School; Steven Capp, principal of Bentleigh West Primary School; Professor Geoff Prince, Director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute; and Allason McNamara, a mathematics teacher at Trinity Grammar, Victoria, and President of the Australia Association of Mathematics Teachers.

Putting the case for Year 1 assessment, its report says: ‘Early success in reading and number sense is a powerful predictor of later achievement, and is strongly correlated with schooling performance across the curriculum. This means that effective reading and numeracy instruction in the early years of schooling is critical.

‘Part of effective teaching is the use of appropriate assessments to inform teachers of the achievement level of students so that appropriate teaching and intervention strategies can be put in place if a child is not achieving at the expected level.'

The panel reviewed existing early years assessments in Australia and found that ‘while a number of schools do have literacy and numeracy assessments in Year 1 and Year 2, there is no consistent approach across education systems or jurisdictions, and they are not mandatory in every state or territory'. In particular, it identified gaps in assessment of phonics skills and a lack of an early years numeracy assessment covering all numeracy descriptors in the Australian Curriculum.

Literacy and numeracy achievement

The report notes 2016 NAPLAN results show 3.9 per cent of Year 3 students are not meeting national minimum standards for reading and 4.6 per cent of Year 3 students are not meeting the same standards for numeracy. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum: ‘… the proportion of higher-achieving students (placed in the top two NAPLAN bands) has dropped from 49.4 per cent in Year 3 to 20.6 per cent by Year 9. … [In numeracy] the proportion of higher-achieving students (placed in the top two NAPLAN bands) drops from 35.6 per cent in Year 3 to 22.5 per cent by Year 9.'

Benefits and challenges of Year 1 checks

Education stakeholders and members of the public were invited to make submissions during a national consultation. ‘In total, 94 responses were received from members of the public, teachers, education specialists, trainers, academics, principals, speech pathologists and education organisations,' the panel reports. ‘There were 64 submissions supportive of a Year 1 check, and 29 against a Year 1 check, with 1 submission neither declaring support for or against.'

The advisory report features a summary of recurring submission themes by stakeholder group, including teachers and principals. Here is a selection of some of their comments.

What did teachers say? Benefits of Year 1 checks: Testing of curriculum that should be taught in schools; Early identification of at risk children in literacy and numeracy, identifies gaps in students' knowledge; Data collection and assisting in planning. Challenges: Teacher training/PD and classroom resources will need to be provided to enable effective and efficient implementation; Funding for relief teachers whilst teachers administer the test; Not addressing the flaws in the UK Phonics Screening Check/ inaccurately tests students; Not providing funding/resources to support students identified through the check as at risk; Additional workload for teachers including, impact on time to administer tests; Duplication of existing tests and/or additional testing burden; Stress or anxiety for students and parents; Some commented writing was a key element that needs to be in the test.

What did principals say? Benefits: Greater accountability; Drawing teachers focus on what skills need to be taught; Identification of students who have not reached expected benchmarks in reading and numeracy, supported by evidence and data; Improved preservice teacher training and teacher professional learning. Challenges: Time to perform the check and to analyse the results; Not having additional resources allocated to each school – funding a concern; Risk of narrowing of curriculum.

What did academics, education consultants and speech pathologists say? Other benefits highlighted by these stakeholders included: Literacy and numeracy assessments can be used to celebrate learning, identify strengths, needs, barriers to learning and allow teachers to make informed and objective judgements about learning; Focusing teachers' and schools' attention on the need for phonics to be taught explicitly and systematically to achieve the necessary level of word reading skills that are required to develop skilled reading; Early identification of children with learning difficulties or [those who] need additional instruction. Challenges included: Measures for exemption needed; There is a significant challenge in selecting an appropriate test at the outset; A single test measuring a single skill will not be valuable or productive, not flexible enough to meet the needs of teachers or students; Don't want to overtest students; Parents/teachers may be sceptical or unhappy with additional testing.

Timing, administration and use of results

The advisory panel has recommended the checks be carried out early in Term 3 of Year 1 in a ‘quiet but relaxed' school setting, one-on-one by a member of teaching staff the student is familiar with. The report doesn't specify a length, but says the checks should be ‘brief in duration (to cater to attention of 5-6 year old children and time pressures in schools)'.

Students would give oral responses and all students would answer the same items. For the literacy checks, it's likely students will be asked to identify letters and sounds that make up words. In numeracy, tasks would include counting and recognising shapes and numbers.

It's suggested the teacher could use a digital app for scoring and data collection to ensure results are available immediately. For students not reaching the national benchmark, the panel says checks could be carried out again towards the end of Term 4 of Year 1 ‘following a period of up to 14 weeks further teaching and/or intervention'.

Data from the checks would be aligned to the Australian Curriculum. The panel says the checks should provide a ‘sufficient amount of detail to guide intervention at the student level, and changes to teaching practice at the school and system level where necessary'.

It recommends individual results should be shared with teachers, parents and carers. The panel says it supports a national database allowing research analysis to inform improvements in teaching practice and policy. ‘However, in light of the serious objections raised by some stakeholders, the Panel does not consider the publication of individual or school level data would be advantageous for this check, and recommends limitations on the publication of data.'

‘Schools in which significant proportions of children do not reach criterion on these [Year 1] measures should be offered appropriately tailored supports, at teacher and student levels,' the report notes. It recommends evidence-based training and professional development is given to teachers in the delivery of the checks, data collection and interpretation of the results, and intervention programs for students.

A copy of the advisory panel report, fact sheet and frequently asked questions is available by clicking on the link.