The following is an edited and updated version of an article I originally published on “The Punch”.
NAPLAN testing is scheduled, as always, for May of this year in schools around the country. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA), as well as proponents of NAPLAN, make three central claims extolling the usefulness of this high-stakes test.
First, they claim NAPLAN will tell us that the tests are important to assess the quality of teaching in our children’s schools. Second, they will assure us that the tests can diagnose academic issues our children may be struggling with. Third, they will confirm that the purpose of NAPLAN is to maintain Australia’s high levels of literacy and numeracy in comparison to other countries in the world.
ACARA and the proponents of NAPLAN (including our education ministers) will not tell you that there almost a complete lack of evidence to support those three claims.
They will also avoid the substantial evidence, both from overseas and increasingly within Australia, that suggests that not only is NAPLAN not able to do those things, but it is unreliable, a poor diagnostic instrument, ‘dumbs down’ Australian curriculum and children’s education, has a negative impact on student wellbeing, and reduces teacher’s capacity to develop both themselves and their students.
Professor John Polesel from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education recently published a review of the evidence related to the effects and effectiveness of high-stakes tests, such as NAPLAN. He reports evidence indicating technical unreliability, an inability to measure students’ actual learning, and wide margins of error that effectively make NAPLAN unreliable.
Moreover, as a diagnostic tool, NAPLAN is literally worthless. The head of ACARA, Peter Hill, admitted as much to a 2010 Senate References Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations when he stated that NAPLAN tests cannot be used as a diagnostic tool, in part due to the five-month time lag between the time the students take the test and the time the test results are delivered.
NAPLAN is not only unreliable and an ineffective, blunt diagnostic tool. The evidence is increasing that it harms children’s learning. The Queensland Studies Authority state that this testing encourages “methods of teaching that promote shallow and superficial learning rather than deep conceptual understanding and the kinds of complex knowledge and skills needed in modern, information-based societies.”
In short, context is removed, and children simply learn a list of facts or formulas to get at the right answer as fast as possible. Such an approach misses the point of education. Yes, the answers are important. However, the process of acquiring the answer should enrich understanding and development.
The data are in on teacher’s approaches to teaching when standardised high-stakes testing is introduced. The news is bad again. As the stakes go up, teachers take centre-stage in the learning process.
Student-centred learning is dismissed as too time consuming as teachers focus on teaching to the test. Australian evidence points to schools reducing children’s opportunity for broadening, enriching educational experiences in science, sport, music, and the arts. Excursions, major events, and even recess or lunch are curtailed to get more NAPLAN practice in.
And evidence also points to NAPLAN reducing student opportunity for special interest projects and collaborative work in deference to competition, individualism, and practice tests. In short, the curriculum is narrowing, and teachers are understandably focused on what gets measured at the expense of other things that should also matter.
Lastly, researchers have found strong evidence that student wellbeing is harmed by such high-stakes testing. While Australian research is limited, overseas data for similar tests shows this testing increases distress for children as young as eight years old through decreased self-esteem, physiological difficulties including lack of sleep, headaches, and vomiting, and emotional and behavioural problems.
As Professor Polesel points out, why are Australia’s parents so willing to send their children to a school where they are so stressed they have headaches and vomit? Aren’t schools supposed to be a place of nurturing and learning?
With so much evidence demonstrating that NAPLAN does not meet its stated aims, and with even more evidence showing the negative impact of high-stakes standardised testing, why do both sides of government persist in promoting NAPLAN as an integral part of our curriculum?
A large percentage of Australia’s parents have unquestionably accepted the government’s position that NAPLAN is good for education, good for teachers, and good for students. While the test is still some months away, parents of children as young as eight years old are paying for extra tutoring, putting their children through practice tests, and offering bribes and goodies to ‘motivate’ their children to do well at NAPLAN.
In November, an eight year-old in grade 3 is going to get a NAPLAN result that says “below average”. The result will be shown on a scale indicating where most children his age are, and where he presently sits – at the bottom of the continuum. Parents and teachers will promise to support him. But in most cases, he will only understand one message. “You are a failure.”
While it may be true at that point in time, no eight-year old needs to be labelled a failure. Neither do children in grades 5, 7, or 9. Of course the teachers and parents may have already known this. But now he does too.
NAPLAN is setting up our teachers for failure, our schools for failure, and most importantly, it is setting up our children for failure, both in the short term and the long term.
UPDATE: In today’s Daily Telegraph there are claims that ACARA is taking extra steps to reduce the chance that cheating may be occurring for this high stakes test. ACARA are forgetting Campbell’s Law, which states:
“The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
In other words, the greater the impact of high-stakes tests on educational decisions and outcomes for our children and teachers, the greater the likelihood that there will be cheating and corruption surrounding it, thus making the outcomes less and less valid.