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Queensland's Student Performance Standards: A litmus test for the independence of independent schools?

Bruce J Howden
Implementation of the Queensland government's Student Performance Standards (SPS) reporting framework has the potential to impinge upon independent schools in a variety of ways. The recent draft policy statement on assessment and reporting in the new Queensland English syllabus (Years 1 to 10) is used as the medium through which the issue is examined in this paper. The paper begins with a brief critique of the SPS document and concludes with an appraisal of possible implications for non-government schooling.

Analysis of the document

In recent years, the Queensland Department of Education has been in the process of developing a standards-referenced framework, particularly with regard to English and mathematics. This structure is based upon principles congruent with the philosophy that underpins the National Profiles. At the outset, the Queensland Department of Education document acknowledges the national interest in education when it states:
Student performance standards (SPS) in English provide a common framework across Australian states and territories for reporting on the quality of student performance. The standards describe the progressive achievements in a student's use and knowledge of English. (Queensland Department of Education, 1994:1)
The above statement may be seen as a clear indication of the effect of the national Collaborative Project on Curriculum. This initiative, undertaken by the Australian Education Council (AEC), resulted from leadership provided by Dawkins, who, in the latter part of the 1980s, was the minister responsible for the federal Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET).

Lingard and Collins (1991:89) saw this as part of the attempt by Dawkins '... to take a 'national' approach to the reframing of education policy as central to supply-side, micro-economic reform.' The creation of an amalgamated federal department that included education with employment and training was indicative of the government's priorities for schooling.

In 1998, Dawkins released a document entitled Strengthening Australia's Schools. It made far-ranging recommendations, including a call for a national curriculum to be complemented by a national approach to assessment. It mentioned the need for benchmarks for measuring school achievement, assessment of school performance, and public reporting on school level education. It is the author's belief that the influence of Strengthening Australia's Schools may be seen in the draft document on Student Performance Standards in English.

This is exemplified not only by the acknowledgment that the standards are designed to fit within a national plan of assessment and reporting, but also by the use of terminology taken from the National English Profile document developed by CURASS, The Curriculum and Assessment committee of the AEC. It contained terms such as 'Achievement Statements', 'Broad Learning Outcomes' and 'Pointers'. Figure 1 reveals the correlation in terminology.

National English ProfileEnglish in Years 1 to 10
A guide to using student performance standards in English

One statement for each Level describing holistically student progress across the modes


... provide a holistic description of student performance at each of eight Levels across Years 1 to 12


A set of broad outcomes for each mode and level of the profile, describing what students working at that level in each module can do


...describe the abilities and the related attitudes, processes, skills and knowledge that are essential and distinctive to English. They represent progressive performance typically demonstrated as students become more proficient in using and learning about English


The list of points for each broad outcome providing typical examples of the kinds of achievements which demonstrate achievement of that broad outcome


... indicate aspects of performance that students may be exhibiting at a Level. They can assist in decision making at the Outcome level by providing illustrations of typical aspects of a student's performance in English

Figure 1: Correlation of Terminology

It is unmistakably part of the movement towards outcomes-based education. There is pressure on schools and school systems to be more accountable, as foreshadowed by Strengthening Australia's Schools. Dale (1989:63) described this change in the late 1980s as '... a period in which the official agenda for education has become both more explicit and more precise, as the rage of expectations of education and the extent of educational provision have both increased'.

If young people were to be seen by government as a form of human capital in which to invest, politicians needed to be able to control the agenda. As Dale (1989:58) said ... 'in order for any group to achieve its purposes through schools, it is necessary for the group to achieve control of schools and control in schools'.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The proposed national approach to curriculum planning, its implementation and student assessment

In the case of the United Kingdom, the government, through the Education Reform Act 1988, has determined the inputs of education and set up surveillance of the outputs of education, leaving schools with the responsibility to 'deliver the goods'. While the situation in Australia is different, it is the author's opinion that the Student Performance Standards do represent an attempt to measure the outcomes of schooling. As such, they might be seen to fit within the right-hand column of the above diagram and raise issues of concern for independent schools.

Implications for Independent Schools

There is a degree to which schools in the independent sector (especially primary schools) have enjoyed the freedom to set their own curriculum. Frequently, they have adopted, adapted or even ignored state syllabuses at primary level. The implementation of SPS may seriously impinge upon this current situation.

The recent Wiltshire Report, Shaping the Future: Review of the Queensland School Curriculum (1993) addressed the issues of curriculum for all schools in Queensland, not only those con trolled by the Department of Education.

It recommended a statutory body to develop syllabuses for all schools. A common reporting framework was also advocated. If this were linked with a future government's desire to register all non-state schools, the independent sector might find itself needing to implement SPS as part of its reporting procedures.

Implementation of SPS by independent schools would force certain issues to be addressed. In relation to the direction of the new Queensland English Syllabus, present assessment procedures of many independent schools would need to be re-evaluated. In addition, considerable inservicing of staff would be required and the parent community would need to be convinced of the advantages of the proposed changes.

To be effective, standards-referenced assessment is dependent upon a number of factors, not the least of which is anchoring the standards with exemplars. As Sadler (1987:207) said ... 'the respective strengths of exemplars on the one hand and verbal descriptions on the other suggest the possibility of specifying standards by a combination of the two'. Currently the draft SPS document provides no exemplars. It talks of teachers developing folios of student assessment information (p.28) but provides no examples to exemplify the common standards for all schools. The value of exemplars lies in their capacity to interpret descriptors. The dilemma for independent schools would be the degree to which they would need to build banks of examples from within the activities of their own students and by moderation with other schools.

In so doing, this would raise another issue central to this from of assessment and reporting - comparability of standards. Griffin and Nix (1991:24) saw a key element of assessment as being ... 'assessments should be agreed upon by two or more teachers working together'. This process of moderation is critical in bringing individual judgments of teachers in line with general standards. One of the strengths of the proposed scheme is its definition of absolute standards. A student ascribed Level 4 achievement in English, or in one of the strands of English, could be in any class or Year Level in the school. Therefore, Level 4 would need to mean the same standard in every classroom and in every school.

In the adoption of SPS across all schools in Queensland, the Level Statements would need to have the same standard, or value, from school to school and from system to system. This would necessitate opportunities for teachers to visit other teachers classrooms in other schools, to invite them into their own rooms, and to establish some form of moderation meetings across schools to enable teachers to share note' and samples of students' work. The place of independent primary schools in this respect is very uncertain for the draft SPS document appears to make no reference to a mechanism for establishing comparability of standards across schools.

The SPS policy does state that ... 'using student performance standards enable: teachers to describe student achievement in reports that are meaningful in all state schools in Queensland' (p.28). It is possible that independent schools may elect not to participate in Student Performance Standards, if that is not a requirement under any future registration of non-state schools.

Nevertheless, implementation of SPS in the public sector would have a major impact upon non-government schooling, particularly schools where students commence their independent education during the latter primary years or at the beginning of their secondary education. They would arrive having had a form of schooling where reporting had been according to the SPS model which is meant to reflect a curriculum continuum that spans Years 1 to 10.

If independent schools elect not to participate in the Student Performance Standards reporting procedures, their parents may well wonder at the credibility of the SPS framework. Alternatively, they may well question whether independent schools have kept pace with curriculum and assessment advances. If it were the latter view, non-government schools would be in a difficult position if they sought to ignore a commonly accepted statewide reporting mechanism. All this highlights the question:

How independent are independent schools in terms of the essence of their day-to-day functioning - the curriculum and its delivery?


Dale, R (1989) 'From expectations to outcomes in education systems' The state and education policy, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Docking, R A (1984) 'Writing School Reports' in Junior Schools' Heads Association Conference, Perth, Western Australia 1984, unpublished paper.

Griffin, P and Nix, P (1991) Educational Assessment and Reporting, Marrackville, NSW: HBJ.

Lingard, R and Collins, C (1991) 'Radical reform or rationalisation? Education under Goss Labor in Queensland', Discourse, 11(2), 98-114.

Queensland Department of Education (1994) English in Years 1 to 10: A guide to using student performance standards in English, Brisbane: Government Printer.

Sadler D R (1987) 'Specifying and Promulgating Achievement Standards' in Oxford Review of Education, 13(2),191-209.

Wiltshire, K, McMeniman M and Tolhurst T (1993) Shaping the Future: Review of the Queensland School Curriculum, Brisbane: Government Printer.

Author details: Bruce Howden is a staff member at the Anglican Church of England Grammar School, Brisbane.

Please cite as: Howden, B. J. (1994). Queensland's Student Performance Standards: A litmus test for the independence of independent schools?. Queensland Researcher, 10(2), 19-23. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr10/howden.html

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Created 11 Sep 2005. Last revision: 11 Sep 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qr10/howden.html