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Education Leadership Media

Testing Times for NAPLAN

For the benefit of my overseas readers, all Australian school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are assessed using national tests in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation) and Numeracy.

These are known as NAPLAN tests. They are the equivalent to the SATs in the UK or the NEAPs in the US.

Every year standardised tests come under the microscope. Everyone with an opinion (educated or otherwise) throws in their two cents…

So here’s mine (you can decide whether it’s educated or otherwise.)

In the last couple of weeks, with regard to NAPLAN, the media has been awash with allegations of teachers cheating, parents refusing to allow their kids to take the test, and principals selecting new enrolments based on NAPLAN scores.

With stories like this it’s not surprising that anyone who wanted to condemn NAPLAN got their obligatory 3 minute soundbite onto Morning TV. Bold statements like “NAPLAN harms our kids for life” at breakfast time, make for essential viewing for the mums and dads of every 8 – 14 year old in the country!

But here’s the thing…

Standardised tests do have a role to play in today’s education. They can serve as a diagnostic tool to highlight areas in a child’s learning that may need attention – indeed that is the purpose NAPLAN was intended to serve.

On the NAPLAN website it says:

  • Students and parents may use individual results to discuss achievements and progress with teachers.
  • Teachers use results to help them better identify students who require greater challenges or additional support.
  • Schools use results to identify strengths and weaknesses in teaching programs and to set goals in literacy and numeracy.
  • School systems use results to review programs and support offered to schools.

The tests themselves are not the problem.

The issues such as those reported in the media this week arise because the data is abused by people who should know better.

The problems associated with standardised tests are due to the seemingly innate human desire to compare oneself (or children) to others.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that the governments MySchool website uses NAPLAN results as its main source of comparison data.

In early 2010, Prime Minister, Julia Gillard whilst still Education Minister stated, “Before MySchool, parents would do everything they could to find out as much information as possible about the schools in their suburb – maybe they’ve moved suburb, moved cities, moved states, want to know which is the school that their child should go to and that’s been a hard battle for them to get the information. Now, as one source of information they will be able to get on MySchool and see more comprehensive information than they’ve ever had access to before.”

As soon as we have a notion of choice – we get competition between the potential choices (in this case, schools) and in every competition in the world – there is cheating and corruption. So should the stories in the media these last two weeks be surprising? I don’t think so.

This has the potential to get much worse with Ms Gillard’s government announcing at its budget this month, their intention to introduce incentive based pay for teachers.

You guessed it – NAPLAN test scores would be part of the assessment criteria!

So, stay with me here…  scores from a test – that we are told, you cannot teach to or prepare for – will form the basis of whether or not a teacher nets an extra $8000 a year or not…

If NAPLAN wasn’t high stakes before… it certainly will be now – for the teacher at least! Never mind the raft of research that tells us performance related pay actually DECREASES performance! (But that’s another blog post yet to come…)

As well as principals keen to ensure that their schools league ranking doesn’t slip on their watch, individual teachers will have the thought of an extra $8000 in their mind when it comes to planning the next week’s work.

In the quest to net the extra cash, what will be the first to go from the child’s learning experience? Art, Music, Drama, PE? Perhaps creative writing will be pushed the side so classes can work from books that look to maximise your NAPLAN performance.

But that’s all to come… back to the issues of the day.

Principals and teachers have to be the leaders in the education revolution. They have to stand up for what is right and spell out to the politicians and misguided masses, what is blatantly wrong about using these standardised tests in a way they were never intended.

The media will report whatever makes the headlines that day… so whilst one day they’ll be condemning NAPLAN, you can be assured that in a month or two, the same outlets will be publishing league tables or promoting the idea of Performance Related Pay based on NAPLAN data.

As I said before. I have no problems with standardised tests per se; but the way in which we use them is fundamentally flawed.

If a principal uses NAPLAN test scores as a means to select students into their school (and for the record – I don’t believe there is a single principal in the country that would only use test scores to do this) then the sooner they retire, the better. And you can quote me on that.

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Education Leadership

How Should We Measure The Effectiveness of a School?

Consider the following students…

Christopher* is a Year 12 student who is on course for a top ATAR. He is likely to be the Dux of the School. However, Christopher has always had issues socializing, and suffers anxiety. It is not clear how he will function outside the structure of a small high school.

David has been in the bottom sets his whole school career. His teachers constantly recognize the fact that he appears to be working to the best of his abilities. However, because of the nature of the school system the best he can hope to achieve is a “C” and sometimes he falls short of this grade. As a result of this he has been constantly reminded that despite his best efforts he does not succeed in the subjects at school. He is close to leaving without any real insight into what he is actually good at.

Sally is a top academic student. She has graduated from School with an ATAR that gives her the choice of courses at University. She is keen to do teaching or some kind of social work but her parents are eager for her to go into the Law profession, and given the capacity to earn more money as a lawyer she elects to study law at University.

Eric is good musician and singer. He has decided to pursue his passion by heading to Nashville in America to hone his songwriting craft. As a consequence he has made it clear that school work is no longer a priority. As well as practicing music everyday, he is working as many hours as possible in his part time job to save for his flight to America. He has agreed to complete his HSC to keep his parents happy, but it is obvious that his heart is not in it. He credits his decision to follow his passion to his Head of House and Music Teacher who have always encouraged him to focus on his music.

The review of NAPLAN and HSC results provides an avenue for assessing the effectiveness of the school. Indeed it is this data that the Australian MySchool website is built around. In doing this the Government imply that this the most important information parents require in determining the appropriate school for their children.

The majority of educational systems are structured from the top down. Universities determine the kind of students they want in their respective courses. The assumption is that a student with an ATAR of 99 will make a better doctor/physio/lawyer than the student with an ATAR of 85.

The issue with determining effectiveness in this way is the inherent impact it has on the teaching and learning at school. It reinforces the antiquated hierarchy of subjects that places a higher value on subjects like Mathematics and English than subjects such as Woodwork the Arts.

As such the student who excels at Drama or Art is not validated in the same way as the student who excels at Mathematics or English.

You could argue that of all the students above; it is with Eric, the musician, that the school has had the most success. He has found his passion and he feels confident in his abilities to pursue his dream.

You could also argue that the school has “failed” every time a student graduates in the same scenario as David. Surely the very least a school should be doing is ensuring that students find something that they not only good at, but are passionate about and can engage with.

With regard to Christopher, as Dux of the School, his exam results will undoubtedly open doors for him, but for how long given his lack of social skills?

And how about Sally? Should the school revel in the fact they have produced another Law undergraduate, or should they reflect on the fact a student has left not being true to herself?

Unfortunately there is no statistic to reflect the Christopher Complex, David Disorder, Eric Effect or Sally Syndrome, on the MySchool website (or anywhere else to my knowledge). If there was, in conjunction with the standardized test scores, parents would be able to better ascertain what the school could offer their child.

*All names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty and everyone in between