Relief and Despair – The Federal Government’s Contradiction of Intention and Actuality

It was with great relief to hear that Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University and a chief education adviser to US President Barrack Obama report that NAPLAN-style testing and reporting have failed in the United States by narrowing the curriculum and corrupting education standards.  But within the same week our relief rapidly deflated to despair as we read in the Melbourne Age (Saturday 7th May 2011) that the results of national literacy and numeracy tests are one of the elements expected to be used to determine which teachers receive bonuses; and that primary schools that lifted their performance in literacy and numeracy tests bonuses of $75,000.

Our organisation has constantly spoken out about the limitations and negative ramifications of the NAPLAN test (three of our articles written in our newsletters last year are attached at the bottom) and the dangers associated with the collation of such data and publication on the MySchool website.  We have constantly reported exactly the same disturbing events that have been reported by Professor Darling Hammond during her recent visit to Australia.  These include

  • Narrowing of the curriculum
  • Extensive practice of teaching to the test - taking children away from the 'real learning'
  • Schools and teachers have been judged and rewarded financially for improving student test scores and punished for poor ones
  • This led to good teachers abandoning schools in disadvantaged areas.
  • We have seen growing student exclusion to get the scores up. Schools either prevent students from taking the test or encourage them to leave school
  • Schools that have choices about who to admit will not admit low-achieving students because they will bring their scores down.
  • While basic skills literacy and numeracy tests were designed to help teachers identify children with learning difficulties, they are also being used as a competitive measure of school performance on the governments My School website.
  • Australia would be wiser to follow the examples of Finland, Korea, Shanghai and Singapore, whose 15-year-olds achieve the best results in numeracy, literacy and science in comparison with other developed nations.

So it begs the question ... why does the Federal government insist on placing such emphasis and credence on the NAPLAN? Particularly given the compelling research, what the experts say and what the school communities know about the limitations and the negative ramifications in terms of learning and practice.  The answer lies in the Government having good intention - to raise educational standards and to measure these standards so that they as a government can support schools that need support, reward excellent teachers and provide the best opportunity as possible for our children to learn.  Unfortunately there is massive contradiction between intention and what is actually taking place.

The first error of their ways lies in the measurement tool being used (NAPLAN); all researchers know that a measurement device needs to be both accurate and precise.

Accuracy relates to how close can you get to the bulls eye with your measurement tool - with NAPLAN that means how accurately does NAPLAN measure children's learning and teachers performance?  The answer is that not only does NAPLAN fail to provide an accurate tool of authentic literacy and numeracy it completely misses other critical skills, knowledge and understandings we need to give to our children for them to be successful learners such as;

  • self empowerment
  • decision making
  • organisation skills
  • ownership of their learning
  • self esteem
  • authentic contributions
  • having a voice and lateral
  • creative thinking.

If we think the education of children is about being able to rote learn, to be competent in numeracy and literacy and nothing else ... and then to be compared to every other child across the country then NAPLAN is the way to go.  If we think of education as the development of the skills required for our children to become successful in life (including numeracy and literacy) then NAPLAN fails dismally as an assessment tool.

Precision relates to the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results (the degree of scatter of the shots around the bulls eye) - with NAPLAN this means if you were to test the same children using NAPLAN over a period of months or years would they achieve a similar result?  The research reports that the NAPLAN has very poor precision.

As reported in the Melbourne Age (7/5/11):  The agency responsible for the My School website cautioned against using national literacy and numeracy test results to award financial bonuses to schools, warning the data was likely to be unreliable. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority reported that overseas experience showed that data that attempted to track the improvement made by students over time was volatile.  That the authority board cast doubt on the reliability of the information and that caution was urged against using this data set, as the error margins (i.e. the precision) are likely to be too great to infer any meaningful conclusions. International experience shows that data tend to bounce from year to year.

All of this provides compelling evidence that while the government may have good intention their method to fulfill this intention is completely flawed and runs a high risk of achieving an outcome that is the opposite; poor teaching and learning; disenfranchised teachers; and disengaged children.  It is incomprehensible how the Gillard government could waste millions of dollars in bonuses to schools and teachers on such meaningless and flawed data;

The Governments insatiable desire to test, measure and perpetuate failed systems leaves us all in a state of intense frustration, anger and disbelief.  For how much longer do we need to go down this path before Julia Gillard's advisors get what so many others in the western world know - that standardised testing is a complete waste of everyone's time, misleads and misdirects where the emphasis of measurement of quality education should go and serves to compromise our teachers but more importantly is a total injustice to our children.

Shona Bass

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Bass 2010 Beyond Rhetoric NAPLAN.pdf299.85 KB
BASS 2010 Meaning Assessment.pdf258.4 KB
WALKER 2010 Education 21st C.pdf284.85 KB