The New World Of Competitive Schooling


During the next three days, over one million students from across the country will have their normal classroom programs interrupted. Once again NAPLAN is upon us, causing educators around Australia to shake their heads in dismay.

NAPLAN is the educational equivalent of the British Royal family. It has been showered with considerable attention from the media and yet the general public knows very little about its inner workings

The test was originally designed to provide teachers, principals and policy makers with a macro view of how the education systems in Australia are serving their most important stakeholders, the students. However, the publishing of NAPLAN results on the MySchool website has transformed this assessment into a high stakes game for Australian schools.

Enrolments, the lifeblood of any school, are heavily influenced by the information presented on this website. This places schools in direct competition with one another to ensure that their NAPLAN results appear impressive to the parents of current and prospective students. There has been very little discussion about the impact that this is having on the type of education being delivered in our classrooms.

One major change resulting from this new paradigm of competitive education has been the narrowing of the curriculum. Many school administrators now view any activity that does not directly impact on NAPLAN scores as superfluous. A disproportionate amount of time, money and energy is devoted to Maths and English, the only subjects covered by NAPLAN. And since schools have to manage finite budgets, the increased attention being given to these two subjects has led to a reduction in resources for all other disciplines.

The desire to boost test scores is not only influencing what is being taught, it is also having adverse effects on the methods of instruction being used. Student engagement, long recognised as crucial to successful learning, is taking a back seat as teachers are pressured to alter the way in which they teach in order to better prepare their students to perform well in the tests. Throughout term one, and in some cases term four of the previous year, students have been wasting precious hours completing practice exams and learning test-taking tricks that may be helpful in boosting their NAPLAN scores, but have no substantive value in any other context.

Despite the significant disruptive impact on student learning, the results that are generated from the NAPLAN assessments are of very little use to either teachers or parents. Teachers do not obtain access to the results until five months after the students have sat the tests. The idea being promoted by the Gillard Government that five month old NAPLAN results are useful in assisting teachers with lesson planning is comical. Sometimes an assessment administered on a Monday can be rendered worthless by the end of that same week, such is the rapid pace at which students learn.

Even if the process of getting the results back to the teachers was streamlined, they would still be relatively worthless in terms of guiding future teaching, due to the mile wide, inch deep nature of the NAPLAN tests. NAPLAN seeks to discover what students know about an extensive range of topics within a subject, but provides very little detail about any one particular area. For example, if I wanted to get information about my students’ level of understanding of multiplication and division concepts, I would not look at their NAPLAN results, as there may have been as few as one or two multiple choice questions relating to this particular topic.

Similarly, NAPLAN does not provide parents with any meaningful information about their child’s learning. NAPLAN was designed to compare the overall achievement of large groups of students, and because of this, there is a sizable margin of error when looking at the results of any one individual student. NAPLAN can only inform you that your child’s results fall within a range which is somewhere in the vicinity of two school years. The report sent out to parents does not make this fact clear. Instead, it provides what appears to be an exact measurement of academic ability. If more parents were aware that all the report really told them was that their child’s reading ability was between the start of grade two and the end of grade three, it is unlikely that they would continue to place the same value on the test.

A standardised testing program such as NAPLAN can be useful in providing educators and policy makers with a broad view of what is happening in Australian schools. However, while the federal government continues to use NAPLAN to serve a range of purposes that it was not designed for, it will continue to be a waste of students’ time and taxpayers’ money. Whenever the unintended consequences of an accountability scheme begin to cause extensive damage to that which you set out to monitor in the first place, it is time to re-evaluate. When the area being harmed is the education of our children, the need for change becomes urgent.

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