Over the last week literacy has been thrust into the media spotlight, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s now-infamous comments that refugees were ‘illiterate and innumerate’. The claim and the furore his words provoked brought the phrase “throwing a dead cat” into the Australian electoral lexicon, and got many people talking about the undeniable importance of literacy. Meanwhile, there’s been another group whose literacy has been questioned by the government – although with less public outrage lately – and that’s teachers.
As of August last year, all graduating teachers have to pay $185 to sit 65-question literacy and numeracy tests to prove that they are fit to teach. This year’s candidates will take their test between 16 May and 6 June. Never mind the years of tertiary study, practical teaching placements, or ATARs; the federal government has announced that one multiple choice and short answer format test will ensure that “all new teachers will have been assessed as having the high level personal literacy and numeracy skills required to meet the demands of teaching”. Just as Dutton’s remarks about refugee illiteracy caused controversy, this long-awaited literacy test for teaching graduates has also been the subject of much debate; on one side politicians, on the other academics and teachers, but with little progress.
The literacy tests were one recommendation out of thirty eight from the ‘Action Now, Classroom Ready Teachers’ report, and while the aim of introducing a national literacy test is to “demonstrate that all preservice teachers are within the top 30 per cent of the population in personal literacy and numeracy”, Stewart Riddle, senior lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland estimates the test as being at only a year 10 English standard. Additionally, a key finding from the report was the “need to lift public confidence in initial teacher education” [p. xi], but it remains to be proven how this test will do so. If anything, the fact that soon-to-be-teachers are being given spelling tests seems likely to do the opposite; as Misty Andoniou, Senior Lecturer in Literacy, TESOL and Languages at Canberra University writes, the tests are a political smokescreen, more about a “a box for politicians to tick in their competition to show who…is toughest on teachers”. By overlooking the evidence of meaningful interventions and research into developing literacy in students, the politicians contribute to the perceived deprofessionalisation of teaching, while claiming to do the opposite.
The Australian Education Union has highlighted the inconsistencies of the policy, repeatedly critiquing the test as an ineffective way to manage the oversupply of teaching graduates and the falling entry requirements of teaching courses – both outcomes of the deregulation of the university sector, instead pointing to the other 37 recommendations which address more structural inequalities and issues in education, and recommending that Australia follow the lead of nations such as Singapore, where education students are selected from the top 30% of high school leavers.
The AEU president Correna Haythorpe stated “Teaching courses should be about turning high achieving students into high performing teachers, not helping students who struggled at school learn the basics before they enter the classroom”. John Hattie, chair of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) gave an equally firm rebuke to the idea that a test would be enough to maintain standards: “An ATAR is a percentile. If you’re a teacher who received an ATAR of around 57 that means around 40-50 percent of your students are brighter than you on any one day. That is a worry”. The Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham claims that the mandatory literacy test is to encourage universities to recruit the top 30% of students to teaching, while maintaining staunch opposition to the idea of introducing minimum ATAR requirements for teaching courses, a tactic lauded by the AEU and being introduced in New South Wales and Victoria.
Throughout the debate over teachers’ spelling skills, the linguistic content or knowledge being tested or required for the profession rarely arises. To start with, there is no single ‘literacy’, but rather literacies; functional literacy, critical or media literacy. The test and debate focuses on grammatical skills, yet the reality of what it means for school leavers to be functionally illiterate in contemporary Australia has been ignored. The fact that the current literacy rates in Australia have gone unmentioned demonstrates that this issue is not about the linguistic skills of Australians or our education systems but about political point scoring.
The NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli – who supports the mandatory literacy test for new teachers – recently demonstrated his own lack of linguistic knowledge by flunking a literacy test live on air by simply avoiding the questions. When asked “What’s a pronoun?…A verb?” and then desperately, “An adjective?”, the minister admitted that “This is the sort of thing that ends up tripping ministers for education up” (an utterance sticklers might criticise for its preposition stranding). He also defended his evasion by saying “I’ve always said I’ll never answer a spelling test because I’ll get it wrong”, suggesting that he’s unaware of (or uninterested in) the difference between metalanguage and orthography. So perhaps it’s time for a literacy test for education ministers, rather than for teachers.
You can try out the test with this version of the sample questions – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-01/literacy-numeracy-teachers-test-quiz/6991246