Not Everything Can be Measured with Kitchen Scales.

Distinguished Guest Writer

Lorraine Wilson Lorraine started this feature section of The Treehorn Express on 2 Feb. with “Education as The Processing of Oranges”. You’ll recall that brilliant table. She has been a leader in the drive for more freedom for teachers and children to learn without limits. Her submission to and appearance before the Senate Inquiry are testimony to her deep concern. An outstanding Australian educator, she challenges us with her article below. [Good luck. I hope that you do better than I did.]

Lorraine grew up in Northern Victoria and attended one-teacher rural schools as a child. She always loved to read but had no real interest in writing until much later, when she was deputy principal of a large inner city school, Helen St Northcote.

The student population included a majority of recently arrived migrant children together with impoverished Australian born children. At that time there were no books for young children which showed children of the inner city. The Northcote children could not identify with the characters of the books in their school. Lorraine then set to work writing about the Helen St children. This was the beginning of her writing career.

Today she combines education consultancy, with writing, both for children and for teachers.



  • Australian Literacy Educators’ Medal, 1996
  • Whole Language Umbrella Service Award, 2004
  • Citation of Merit Garth Boomer Award – Australian Literacy Educators Association, July 2005
  • 2011 Lifetime Membership Award, Whole Language Umbrella, National Council of Teachers of English.

Phil Cullen



Teachers can you pass this Test?

Lorraine Wilson

I well remember my mother using kitchen scales to measure quite precisely dry ingredients for various cakes or biscuits she was baking. These scales had a pan on the top to ensure containment of the loose flour or sugar or whichever dry ingredient was being measured.

I remember too the fish scales my father used to weigh his catch after successfully hooking a yellow belly or cod, from the Murray River. Fish, not being loose dry ingredients did not require a pan on the scales for containment, rather a large hook hung from the bottom of the fish scales, and such hook was inserted in the mouth of the fish, to obtain exact weight.

In our particular civilization there are many different measuring instruments – a thermometer to measure the daily temperature; a ruler or tape measure to measure the height of a child, a clock to measure the passing hours – and many more.

These instruments help measure quite precisely what generally are considered mathematical properties such as weight, speed, height.

But can everything we do in our lives be measured so precisely? For example can we measure the strength of the garlic aroma emanating from the local Italian restaurant, or the beauty of the rose blooming in our garden, in the same objective way?

At this time of rampant standardised testing it is timely to pause and consider whether or not we can measure language in the same precise way that we measure quantifiable things as described above?

NAPLAN Reading Year 7: Summary of Skills Assessed

In the Australian NAPLAN Year 7 Reading test, student reading is graded into Bands, numbering from 4 to 9. Band 9 supposedly indicates the best readers, and Band 4, the poorest. These band descriptors are included with each student report. I have listed below (in mixed order) the band summaries of reading skills assessed.

Here then is your test: read the descriptors and see if you can sequence them as indicators of the poorest to the best, Year 7 reading. (The correct sequence is shown at the end of this paper. Do not peep at the answers until you have completed the sequence!)

a) Applies knowledge and understanding of different text types to process ideas, draw conclusions and infer themes and purposes. Identifies details that connect implied ideas across and within texts including character motivation in narrative texts, the values of a writer in persuasive texts and the main ideas in information texts.

b) Interprets ideas and processes information in a range of complex texts. Understands how characters’ traits and behaviours are used to develop stereotypes. Analyses and interprets persuasive texts to infer a specific purpose and audience. Uses the context to interpret vocabulary specific to a text or topic.

c) Uses clearly stated information in familiar text types to draw some conclusions and inferences. Draws conclusions about a character in narrative texts. Connects and sequences ideas in longer information texts and identifies opinions in persuasive texts.

d) Locates clearly stated information in factual texts to connect ideas and make inferences. Identifies the meaning of some unfamiliar words from their context and finds key information in longer texts including tables and diagrams.

f) Makes meaning from a range of text types of increasing difficulty and understands different text structures. Recognises the purpose of general text features such as titles and sub headings. Makes inferences by connecting ideas across different parts of texts, interprets figurative language and identifies the main difference between characters in narrative texts.

g) Processes and interprets ideas that are implicit in a range of complex narrative and information texts. Analyses and evaluates evidence in persuasive texts and identifies language features to infer an author’s intended purpose and audience.

NAPLAN: Language Conventions, Year 7, 2012.

On the NAPLAN Student Report Year 7, the following spelling words are included as exemplars of the spelling expected at each of the different band levels, as measured in the Language Conventions Test.

activity address angrily circulated drafting echoes encouraged excellent ineffective grown label meant message miniature principle severely soldiers technological temporary

Your test continues: How would you grade these words according to supposed spelling difficulty? (Clue: there is not the same number of words given for each supposed level.)

Band 5 ……… …….. …….. …….

Band 6 ……… …….. …….. ……..

Band 7 ……… …….. …….. ……..

Band 8 …….. …….. …….. ……..

Band 9 …….. …….. ……… ……..

Are any of these words difficult for you to spell? Which ones? Were they in band 9? For each one of us, what makes a word easy or difficult to spell? Is it fair that a test assumes the same particular spelling words pose difficulty for children of the same age, all around Australia,?

Standardised Testing

The last decade has seen the proliferation in western democratic countries, of standardised tests. Here in Australia each year, Yrs 3,5,7, and 9 students sit standardised tests of reading, writing and language conventions. In the main, these tests are machine marked. Multiple choice questions are either right or wrong. These tests reduce the use of language to that which can be measured and compared, for the most part, by machines. Questions about a text which require a single word answer taken from the text, make the machine marking and the comparison, easy. Never mind that it reduces reading to a most superficial skimming of a written text.

Children living in Australia have great diversity of life experiences. Their oral language develops from their life experiences and from the texts they read. Children make meaning more readily of those texts, which relate in some way to their life experiences The words they spell with ease are the ones they use most regularly when speaking, writing and when reading.

Language in Use.

Language is learned as it is used; language in real life always serves some authentic purpose. Different people have different interests and different needs, so their language use varies. But even in the same situation e.g., passers by describing the horror of a road accident, no two people will be using exactly the same language. There are many ways of saying the same thing. There are not separate, measurable units of language which can be put together in real life situation, and where the value of the pieces used, can be added together for a final comparable total. Language doesn’t work like that.

To evaluate a student’s reading one needs answers to a range of questions. Just some of these questions are:

Does the reader read to make meaning?

What does the reader do when unknown words are encountered?

In narratives, does the reader predict what is going to happen?

Does the reader make personal, or wider community connections with the text?

Can the reader support his interpretation of a text with evidence from the text?

Does the reader recognize stereotypes in a text?

Does the reader identify underlying author values?

Does the reader have favourite authors?

Multiple choice machine marked tests cannot evaluate thoughtful, deeper level reading. Only informed teachers interacting with their students, in their classrooms can.


Reading: Year 7 Reading Band Descriptors 2012

d) is Band 4: Locates clearly stated information

c) is Band 5: Uses clearly stated information…

f) is Band 6: Makes meaning from a range..

a) is Band 7: Applies knowledge and understanding..

b) is Band 8: Interprets ideas and processes information ..

g) is Band 9: Processes and interprets ideas ..

Spelling words :Language Conventions Year 7, 2012

Band 5: One and two syllable words with common spelling patterns:

grown drafting message

Band 6: Words with common spelling patterns: soldiers address meant activity

Band 7: Words with common spelling patterns and some words with difficult spelling patterns: temporary ineffective excellent circulated

Band 8: Words with difficult spelling patterns: echoes principle angrily encouraged

Band 9: Words with difficult spelling patterns: miniature severely technological label


Student Report 2012 National Assessment Program- Literacy and Numeracy, Year 7, ACARA Australian Curriculum, Assessment and reporting Authority.


3 thoughts on “Not Everything Can be Measured with Kitchen Scales.

  1. To amplify a bit on the analogy of testing and various other measurement devices — each meter measures a one dimensional quantity: scales measure mass; rulers, length; thermometers, temperature, and so forth. Instruments used for testing measure only one dimension, usually the fraction of answers correct or a judgement based on an ordered rubric. The one dimensionality is important because points on a line can be ordered (one number is greater than, equal to or less than any other number). Order is not possible in two or more dimensions. Human intelligence, which is multidimensional, cannot be accurately assessed using one dimensional “meters”.

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