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Plan to robo-mark Naplan writing tests labelled ‘preposterous’

NSW education minister says he is sceptical of claims that computers can do a better job of marking assessments than teachers.

New South Wales has thrown cold water on a plan to allow computers to mark Naplan tests, with the state’s education minister, Rob Stokes, saying the proposal had “no place” in the state’s schools and will never happen while he’s in the job.

Ahead of a meeting of the federal education council on Friday where state ministers will consider a proposal by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority – or Acara – to introduce robo-marking next year, Stokes said it was “preposterous” to suggest computers could do a better job of marking assessments than teachers.

Acara has been pushing to move Naplan online since it released a report in 2015 arguing that there was evidence automated marking “met or surpassed” the quality of human markers.

But Stokes said he was “unconvinced” by the benefits of robo-markers, and said his scepticism was shared “by a large number of academics and teachers”.

“Using machines to assess students’ ability to creatively interpret text, express subtlety, irony, or any other uniquely human trait, runs counter to the reality that teaching and learning are deeply relational pursuits,” he said.

“To put my position more plainly: there will never be machine marking of writing tasks while I am NSW education minister.”

Stokes believes the proposal underestimates the value of marking for teacher development, and is contradictory to attempts to maintain “the interpersonal bond between teacher and student”.

“An increasingly digital world affords us immeasurable opportunity, but like any period of rapid progress, it is not without certain dangers,” he said.

“We have seen technology present the potential for young people to become increasingly isolated and withdrawn. To safeguard against this, it is a matter of prudence to increase the value of a relational education system that fortifies the interpersonal bond between teacher and student.”

And he’s not alone, with the majority of state ministers understood to be sceptical about the plan’s merits.

On Friday, ministers will also be briefed on the government’s plan for a mandatory phonics check, which the federal education minister, Simon Buckingham, strongly backed in September after it was put forward by an expert advisory panel headed by Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies.

The report found that by the time students reach Year 3, when the first Naplan standardised tests are conducted, it is “difficult, expensive and inefficient to remediate gaps in literacy and numeracy skills”.

The test would be based on the United Kingdom’s model of assessment, but a number of state ministers as well as the Australian Education Union have expressed reservations about the idea.

The Victorian deputy premier, James Merlino, said “no decision” would be made about the phonics check on Friday, but said the commonwealth’s proposal “oversimplifies the process of learning to read”.

The ACT education minister, Yvette Berry, said she was “concerned at the suggestion of another standardised national test for Australia’s students, schools and teachers to be judged by”.

The ACT uses the performance indicators in primary schools – Pips – test to assess students’ reading, phonics and numeracy skills in their first year of school and Berry said states and territories should be able to make their own decisions about testing.

“I know Minister Birmingham is assuring people that his Year 1 test would be a light-touch assessment but what’s needed is a further commitment that jurisdictions could use any test according to their needs and without being ranked on a school-by-school basis,” she said.

“If the primary goal is to support teachers with tools for diagnosis and response to individual needs – improving tests rather than adding to them – I am happy to work with Minister Birmingham.

“Parents, teachers and students in Canberra have expressed concern to me at some of the issues around national standardised testing. I have assured them I will be reflecting their concerns back at the national level and will be interested to hear if similar views are held in other jurisdictions.”


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