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Experienced teachers tackle big questions through PhD scholarships

28 June 2021
At the Sydney University Centre for Educational Measurement and Assessment

Two teachers, with nearly 40 years of experience between them, are tackling some of their profession’s biggest challenges. Rayanne Shakra and Sara Ratner are undertaking PhD’s at the Centre for Educational Measurement and Assessment (CEMA) and are supported by NESA scholarships.

Do we measure what we value – or value what we measure?  Do we assess what we learn -or learn from our assessment? These are just some of the curly questions currently being tackled by a growing cohort of researchers and PhD students at the university’s Centre for Educational Measurement and Assessment (CEMA).

The Centre takes applied research approach to professional problems and builds teaching capacity. CEMA conducts a wide range of research on educational assessment and measurement processes and issues; and is also is partnering with a range of educational authorities, including NSW’s Education Standards Authority (NESA), to support teachers’ engagement with and understanding of assessment and data. They provide a range of short professional learning courses for teachers and lecturers. This combination of high impact applied research and professional capacity building is making headlines and attracting experienced and passionate educators to doctoral study.

Rayanne Shakra (L) and Sara Ratner (R) at a CEMA function.

Rayanne Shakra (L) and Sara Ratner (R) at a CEMA function.

Ambitious research projects with potential impact on the teaching profession

Doctoral candidate Rayanne Shakra is researching how teachers gather assessment data and use it to inform teaching and learning in their classrooms. While Sara Ratner’s PhD thesis will make a critical examination of what is valued and what is measured in the Australian school system. Both bring many years of experience in classroom teaching and a deeply grounded understanding of how their research can inform professional practice.

Rayanne Shakra is driven to explore the relationship between assessment and teaching and learning practice, after noting “the big gap in understanding of actual classroom practice” despite the potential, and rhetoric, of assessment for learning.

The use of assessment for accountability has sometimes caused teachers to use data in punitive ways by focusing on teaching to the test, or on particular students who can be bumped up to show measurable, but perhaps unmeaningful, improvement in schools.
Doctoral candidate, Rayanne Shakra

Rayanne is keen to focus on how teacher understanding and skills can instead lead to productive use of assessment data, and optimise teaching and learning processes. She will “take a microlevel look at how effective teachers do this and use it to help others and provide foundation for professional development courses”.

By contrast Sara Ratner’s PhD focuses on a bigger picture, with an analysis of how assessment is positioned within the Australian school education system. Sara is exploring how global educational assessments are informing policy from a local and national perspective.

In particular she’s keen to ask whether our current assessment system is aligned with the values we espouse. Sara asks “how well our system is working – and how do we know?” and argues that current assessments “paint a broad stroke picture of system-wide performance without attesting to whether they are measuring what matters to us as a society”. Her plans include an interrogation of educational data, policy and a wide range of views from education stakeholders.

Both Sara and Rayanne are supported by CEMA and stipendiary scholarships from NESA, with expert guidance from CEMA Director, Professor Jim Tognolini, and a range of other academic and industry advisors and supervisors. Between them, researching at micro and macro levels, there will be new insights forthcoming on how we can strengthen education through assessment.


IMAGE: Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash.

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