A digital test can be more dynamic, more difficult and give greater insight into how students engage with the questions. That will help the Department of Education to improve the test each year and iron out problems, including questions that prove more challenging for students of a particular gender or cultural background.
The test will no longer be carried out by the Australian Council for Education Research, which has run it for the past 32 years, but by Cambridge Assessments, which will write a new one. The technology itself will be delivered by Australian company Janison. Cambridge Assessments – a not-for-profit organisation that is part of the University of Cambridge – is a world leader in academic examination, making it an ideal candidate to transform a test that has been increasingly criticised as one for which children can be coached.
The selective schools test should not be about finding students who know the most or who know how to answer the questions because they have been taught how. The test should be about finding students who have the greatest ability to learn in the years ahead, so they can be stretched to their potential alongside like-minded classmates, regardless of their gender, background or parental ability to pay for a private coaching college.
Experts say an uncoachable test is a pipe dream – that students will always benefit from sitting practice tests, which can reduce test anxiety. But the challenge for Cambridge Assessments and Janison is to produce a test that addresses the inequities in the current model and better identifies raw ability.
Of course, there is not much point having an equitable test if only children from more educated households sit it. Primary school teachers must be encouraged and trained to identify students with potential and ensure those students know about the test, are prepared for it and sit it. This is especially important in areas of greater disadvantage.
Australian research has identified a failure to finish high school as the primary reason for inherited welfare dependence. Yet by giving teenagers a learning environment in which they are challenged, engaged and motivated to do their best, selective high schools have the potential to help break that cycle of disadvantage.
Each student in NSW should find school interesting. And it is critical that the Department of Education keeps working with all schools to ensure students are motivated to reach their potential.
Improving the selective schools test and making it fairer will ensure these schools cater to our best and brightest thinkers – the students who, if given the chance early in life, will likely make a significant contribution to Australian society. That opportunity must go to those who most deserve it – no matter who they are or where they come from.