Thursday, 1 Apr 2010

ACER's history

80 years ago, on 1 April 1930, two staff members, Ken Cunningham, the inaugural chief executive and secretary Mary Campbell, established ACER's first office in two rooms of the T&G building on the corner of Collins and Russell Streets in central Melbourne. By the end of the 1930s ACER's total staff had expanded to five.

From that humble beginning ACER has grown into one of the world's leading educational research bodies with an expanding national and international presence. Eight decades after the organisation was founded, ACER has more than 300 staff working in offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Dubai and Delhi. This article briefly outlines the ACER journey.

ACER was established in 1930 with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, a US organisation created in 1911 to promote 'the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding'. The grants were to benefit the people of the United States, although a small percentage of the funds could be used for the same purpose in countries that were or had been members of the British Commonwealth. The grant to establish ACER was made following a visit to Australia by American James Russell on behalf of the Carnegie Corporation in order to assess the state of education in Australia and investigate appropriate means of assistance.

The official title 'Australian Educational Research Council' was first selected, but then changed at the first council meeting held in 1930 to Australian Council for Educational Research, which has not changed again since.

ACER's early years

Prior to the establishment of ACER there had been no educational institution with an Australia-wide interest. The first research undertaken was: the standardisation of scholastic and mental testing for Australia; a study of the number of children aged 10 to 18 in each school grade or type of occupation; and the fundamental problems of the primary school curriculum.

ACER's early focus was on research as opposed to service activities, and making ACER a clearinghouse of research information. Emphasis was placed on primary and secondary education. It had a policy of functioning through the state Institutes of Educational Research, although this was never particularly successful.

In its early years ACER developed an image as:

  • a centre devoted to the scientific study of education;
  • a knowledgeable institution that could be used by Australian educators to improve their information, and a source of reference on what was the best and latest in educational thought and practice; and
  • a supporter of progressive education.

During the Second World War, ACER was involved in psychological testing for personnel selection to the Armed Services and government departments. ACER also worked on publications dealing with evacuation possibilities, and advised the Department of Post-War Reconstruction. For the three years from 1942 ACER was mostly concerned with the war effort, with regular work suspended. Its war time work helped lead to government financial support for ACER from 1946 and confirmed it as a significant national institution.

In the post war years, ACER was able to move away from war work to focus on schools again. There was now more emphasis on testing. ACER had become dependent on government finance. ACER work included: a large growth in library work; establishment of a semi-autonomous test division; conferences of test users; research into test theory; Australia-wide curriculum survey; university study to determine predictions of academic success; and the beginning of studies into adolescence and unemployment.

In the 1960s ACER began the Co-operative Scholarship Testing Program (CSTP) for scholarships to independent schools. The program still runs today along with several others.

ACER grew rapidly in the post-war decades outgrowing several premises. Originally located in Collins Street, Melbourne until 1958, then in Lonsdale Street, the company moved eight kilometres from central Melbourne to Hawthorn in 1963 then to its current premises in nearby Camberwell in 1994. A second Camberwell office, on Camberwell Road, was sold in 2007 following the purchase of a building adjacent to the company's head office. The buildings were connected allowing almost all Victorian staff to be housed in the one building. A Sydney office opened in 2002, signalling ACER's efforts to be seen as a truly national organisation. This was followed by offices in Brisbane in 2006, Perth in 2007 and Adelaide in 2009. International offices were established in Dubai and India in 2004.

International work

After an early focus on Australian education, ACER now provides a range of services for an expanding number of international clients. ACER manages the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) project on behalf of the OECD and has been involved in many other significant international studies and is a founding member of the Asia Pacific Educational Research Association (APERA) which links educational research organisations across the region.

ACER today

Today, ACER is an independent, not for profit organisation. ACER now receives no government funding — it is funded entirely through contract work, fees for services and product sales.

ACER research is organised into seven research programs:

  • Assessment and Reporting
  • Psychometrics and Methodology
  • Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation
  • National and International Surveys
  • Systemwide Testing
  • Teaching, Learning and Leadership
  • Transitions and Post-School Education and Training

In addition to research, ACER's work includes fee for service testing programs such as scholarship selection, university entrance, psychological and human resources tests. Some of these are available online. Test scoring and administration services are also available. Tests, books and other materials are also published and sold through ACER Press for the education, psychology, human resources, parent education, special needs and speech pathology markets. The ACER Institute (formerly the Centre for Professional Learning) provides a range of professional learning seminars and manages ACER's annual Research Conference.

Future direction

In coming years ACER intends to continue its role as a major international provider of research-based information, products and services. ACER will also expand on its program of research and development in support of learning in vocational education training and in higher education institutions while maintaining and expanding work undertaken in support of schools and providing ready access to reliable usable research information and research-based materials and services.

Further Information

Connell, W.F. (1980) The Australian Council for Educational Research 1930-80, ACER: Melbourne.

Williams, B. (1994) Education With its Eyes Open: A biography of Dr K. S. Cunningham, ACER: Melbourne.