Speech: ACARA CEO, David de Carvalho

‘Connections between national curriculum and assessment’, SMH Schools Summit, 21 February 2023 

I have been given an impossible task, namely in 15 minutes to explain the relationship between national curriculum and assessment.  I’ve got five points to make: four are on the topic, and one is more of observation about the state of our national education conversation.

1: National Curriculum is at the centre of our educational enterprise, so it should be contested.

The Australian Curriculum represents our collective aspirations for future generations. It is at the centre of the educational enterprise that seeks to provide all Australian children and young people with access to a curriculum that expands their horizons, develops their talents, and prepares them to take effective and ethical action in the world. It provides an answer to the question: What is it that we want our younger generation to know and to be able to do?  What things about this world do they need to know that they wouldn’t otherwise work out for themselves, without their teachers directing their attention to them?

These questions were front and centre during the review of the Australian Curriculum that was commissioned by all Australian education ministers, and concluded this time last year after an extensive consultation process.  It generated a great deal of controversy, as different views were aired about the purposes of education, the values that education should promote and the nature of the learning entitlement to which all students have a right.

Such controversy is a positive sign of a robust democracy.  The national curriculum should be contested, but at the end of the process the curriculum was signed off by all ministers.  And in a federated system, there needs to be sufficient flexibility for local adaptation and adoption. It therefore represents a consensus forged through conversation and compromise which is a hallmark of democracy.

2: Effective planning and teaching turns good intentions into good outcomes.

The Australian Curriculum is not a detailed syllabus of the kind that guides teaching in NSW.  It is a high-level framework we would designate as the INTENDED CURRICULUM. The NSW Curriculum is a more detailed adaptation of that intended curriculum for this state.

But as we all know, there can be a divergence between the intended curriculum and the actual knowledge and capabilities that students acquire as a result of their schooling.

For the INTENDED curriculum to be effectively learned requires that it be converted into a PLANNED curriculum at the school and classroom level. This necessitates whole-school curriculum planning, along with jointly planned units of work and lesson plans. ACARA has been asked by Education Ministers, as part of the National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, to consult widely in examining ways to develop and make available to teachers, optional supports of this kind to assist the implementation of the national curriculum. I’m sure Jordana Hunter will have more to say about this after my address.

Then the PLANNED curriculum has to be taught. Some people might use the word “DELIVERED” instead of taught, but that just reduces teachers to delivery drivers of a kind, taking a product off a shelf and delivering it to a customer according to a standardised template. Teaching is a craft – relational, not transactional - which engages students in their learning.

3: Don’t fall for false dichotomies

At this point, a small digression. You’ve no doubt all heard the saying, “To every complex problem there is a simple answer, and it is usually wrong.”

The sheer complexity of the educational enterprise makes it very tempting to over-simplify issues as a means of reducing the cognitive and emotional burden of engaging with them, or more subtly, as a means of finding comfort in membership of a tribe that gives one a strong sense of professional identity.

So, we see an increasing tendency for turning professional discussions into debates about curriculum and pedagogy, in which people take up entrenched positions on one side or the other, displaying little interest in dialogue with those with different perspectives and experiences.  In curriculum, we have the “knowledge” tribe lining up against the “skills” tribe.  But you can’t develop one without the other.

And in pedagogy, you have the direct instruction tribe lining up against the inquiry-based learning tribe, with each insisting that their approach is always and everywhere the best, even though, on close inspection, both approaches often entail elements of the other.

The bigger conversation, to quote John Hattie, is how teachers can choose the right approach at the right time to ensure learning for the students they are teaching, and how both dialogic and direct approaches have a role to play throughout the learning process, but in different ways.

This is because teaching is an ethical activity.  The actions teachers take in the classroom have a lifelong impact on their students. The practical ethics of teaching means pedagogical tribalism is best avoided. Responsible teaching requires familiarity with, and a willingness and ability to employ, the full range of evidence-based pedagogical approaches available to teachers, depending on the situations they face and the students who are in front of them.

But we only know how effective the teaching has been if we ASSESS the learning it has enabled. 

4: Assessment is at the service of the curriculum, not the other way around.

As you know, assessment is generally described as either DIAGNOSTIC, SUMMATIVE or FORMATIVE.  You could say these are the before, during and after of assessment.

DIAGNOSTIC AND FORMATIVE assessments are assessment FOR learning.  DIAGNOSTIC assessment helps to identify students’ current knowledge and skills and to clarify misconceptions before the teaching takes place, so can influence how the curriculum is PLANNED and TAUGHT. 

And there are many types of FORMATIVE assessment. In class tests are just one, but also teacher observations during classroom activities, homework, quizzes etc, help teachers get a sense of how students are progressing towards the attainment of the planned curriculum.  FORMATIVE assessments can influence how the curriculum is taught and learned

SUMMATIVE assessment is assessment OF learning.  It influences not only how curriculum outcomes are REPORTED, but it can also influence PLANNING for the next cycle of teaching.  The reporting can be done for parents and students – in the form of school reports – or for employers and institutions of further learning – in the form of certificates and credentials – or to the broader community, in the form of reports such as the Annual National Report on Schooling in Australia, the 2021 version of which was released yesterday. 

The Annual National Report includes information about student performance in the National Assessment Program.  The National Assessment Program comprises four types of assessment, the most well-known being NAPLAN, which is undergoing some significant changes that I will talk about shortly.  But there are also the three international assessments: PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS.  

In addition, there is the domestic sample assessment program, which involves a three-year cycle as assessments in Year 6 and Year 10 in Science, Civics and Citizenship, and ICT Literacy, which will be known as Digital Literacy from now on, to align it with the Australian Curriculum. 

And from 2024, schools around the country will be able to opt-in to assessments in these areas of the national curriculum, starting with Science in 2024, with Civics and Citizenship added in 2025, and Digital Literacy in 2026.  Results will be returned to the school only, enabling them to benchmark their performance against national standards, and will not be made public. We expect the take-up to be modest initially. 

NAPLAN is the only nationwide assessment that all Australian children undertake and is critical to determining – on a national scale – whether young Australians are acquiring important literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for other learning, and for the productive and rewarding participation in the community. 

But it is most important to remember that NAPLAN does not measure overall school quality. 

Unfortunately, this message seems not to have been appreciated by some media organisations, who have in the past published crude league tables with comparisons that take no account of differences in socio-educational status of school communities. 

This has increased the likelihood of negative unintended consequences for the curriculum of assessments such as NAPLAN. If schools and systems are excessively focused on their relative position on such crude league tables, then there is a danger that the curriculum is put at the service of the assessment, rather than the other way around.  Focus on teaching students the curriculum in all its breadth, and the NAPLAN results will take care of themselves.

When the 2022 NAPLAN results are released tomorrow on the My School website, what I hope the media will focus on is the effectiveness of schools – particularly those serving socio-educationally disadvantaged communities – in lifting the achievement of their students above expectations. Which schools are punching above their socio-educational weight, and why? Tomorrow we will see whether the message about the inappropriateness some past reporting has been taken on board.

5: NAPLAN is at the service of educational equity 

This all goes to the issue of educational equity. NAPLAN is most definitely DIAGNOSTIC at the whole system level and what is showing is that the education system in Australia is suffering from a lack of equity. In a number of areas, the NAPLAN achievement gap is widening between schools serving communities with high levels of socio-educational advantage and schools serving less socio-educationally advantaged communities. In an equitable system, those gaps should be narrowing. 

How can this be addressed? This summit will no doubt elicit a multitude of suggestions, but better information to parents and the community on student achievement can make a modest contribution. 

Improvements to NAPLAN testing recently, particularly the move to an earlier testing window in March this year, and the final transition to all schools doing NAPLAN online in 2022, mean two things. 

First this important information can be returned to educational authorities earlier, informing school and system teaching and learning programs, and allowing teachers to better assess what support students need for the year.

Second, the information received will be a more precise measure of what students can know and do thanks to the tailored, online test that adapts to a student’s performance in the test.

Another big change coming to NAPLAN this year which many of you would have heard about in the media recently is the move to a new proficiency standard for NAPLAN reporting. 

Ministers agreed on 10th February to introduce the new proficiency standard.  ACARA has worked extensively with expert teacher panels, education authorities and ministers to investigate options for the new proficiency standard, as well as consulting with parents. 

The NAPLAN results which are sent out later this year will include the new proficiency standard with 4 levels of achievement: Exceeding, Strong, Developing and Needs Additional Support. These new categories will replace the National Minimum Standard and the 10 numerical NAPLAN bands which have been a part of NAPLAN reporting from 2008. This will provide parents and carers with much clearer and simpler information on whether their child’s literacy or numeracy skills are where they should be at for their stage of learning.

The standard for proficiency is set at a challenging but reasonable level. If a student is in the Strong or Exceeding categories, it means they have demonstrated proficiency and are meeting the expected capabilities for their year level. If a child has not yet achieved proficiency, then they will either be in the Developing category or the Needs additional support category, and parents and carers can use that information to have meaningful conversations with their child’s teachers, get their child the support they need.

These are important changes that support higher expectations for student achievement. The previous national minimum standard was generally regarded as not being set at a challenging enough level. For some parents and carers, it provided a false sense of security that if their child was at or just above the national minimum standard, then they were doing okay, and that was not necessarily the case. 

It’s important for parents/carers to know if their child needs additional support. We do children a disservice if we are not realistic about where they should be in their schooling.  This information can help support action by both parents and schools to see what more they can do to support student progress. 

Ministers have also agreed that now that we have all students online, with the tests being held two months earlier, and the new reporting categories, now is also the right time to reset the NAPLAN measurement scale and to restart the NAPLAN time series.  

This does mean that NAPLAN results from 2023 onwards will not be directly comparable with results from 2008 to 2022, but the time series moving forward will provide much better data.  2023 will be the baseline year against which future improvements in educational equity can be measured. 


To conclude where I began – the curriculum is at the heart of education, and the essential nature of education is that it involves a sense of historic continuity and conversation between generations, between teachers and their students, where a learner engages with the curriculum in the process of becoming a well-rounded human person.

That is, they are on journey towards becoming a person who recognises themselves to be related to others in virtue of participation in, and enjoyment of: multiple systems of meaning, feeling, imagination, desire, recognition; intellectual pursuits and collective actions, moral and religious beliefs, customs and conventions, principles of conduct and rules that denote various rights and responsibilities. 

To imagine that the effectiveness of this process in its totality can somehow be captured in numbers is to indulge in the worst kind of scientific and managerial hubris. But to argue the other extreme, that nothing about education can or should be subject to measurement and quantitative analysis, is equally simplistic. 

We all recognise that it is particularly important that the fundamental capabilities of literacy and numeracy that allow students from all backgrounds to access powerful knowledge across all learning areas should be the subject of critical attention, from parents, teachers, system authorities, researchers and the broader community. For this, assessment data is necessary, but it needs to be kept in perspective, seen at the service of the curriculum.

So, as we begin another school year, with NAPLAN starting in a few weeks’ time, let’s keep assessment in perspective, seeing its strengths and limitations in serving the bigger picture and purposes of schooling as set out in the curriculum.  

Thank you.