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A letter to the Editor supporting educational testing, published in The Australian on 9 November 1990

Regarding the Great Australian Education Debate, the original study and the pieces by Mr Divine and Ms Moore (The Weekend Australian, 27-28 October 1990) were fascinating, and the responses even more so. Your correspondents complained that the study was:

My complaint is that the study was not fully reported. I would have liked to have seen detailed tables showing the number of correct and incorrect answers for each question by State, sex, State and type of previous schooling, coeducational or other status of school and any other relevant sorting data you might have collected (it would probably be outside the terms upon which the schools agreed to participate to also ask for a breakdown by school). Are such tables available? Is the raw data to be the subject of a published academic study?

However all the complaints above -- mine included -- rather miss the point. The study is of limited value for one prime reason: there is no previous study with which its results may be compared. Indeed, there would appear to be no tests conducted which would allow a comparative study of educational techniques in Australia between the public and private systems, between States or between past and present.

It could be that, contrary to common belief, public schools might be better than private. It could be that open-plan teaching surpasses the traditional classroom environment. It could be that abolition of corporal punishment is associated with enhanced scholarship. It could even be that the teaching of learning and thinking techniques produces better equipped young people than the teaching of mere facts.

Alternatively, it could be that none of these are true. I don't know -- nobody knows, for the results flowing from a change in the education system cannot be measured.

To my mind, some of the complaints listed above have some justice behind them. Nevertheless, your study and treatment of it was in my view fully justified on two grounds.

The first is that the shock-horror headlines should have focused more attention to your leading message: objective testing of education systems is essential if we are ever to proceed with some certainty instead of the current 'true-believer' approach.

It is regrettable that your correspondents appear to have overlooked that message. And while there might be specific criticisms which can be validly levelled at your test, surely it is not beyond the capabilities of education professionals to determine what should be measured and then devise the means of measurement.

The second justification is that, damn it, at least you tried where very few others have.

© 1990 - Stephen Dawson