School Tests Tell Us What We Already Know


Feminism’s catchcry “the personal is political” had particular resonance in our home this week. As an educational professional I experienced first hand the NAPLAN phenomenon. The NAPLAN – or NAPALM, as it was hysterically autotexted by a listener to Jon Faine’s ABC radio program – has long been a source of interest to me. My Grade 3 daughter took the test this week.

I tend to side with critics of the test who consider it reveals little about individual student capability in particular learning areas and that it redirects precious classroom resources away from teaching, learning, and thinking towards Test Taking 101 in the months preceding “the event”.  The test is a culturally situated tool that reveals more about the system it comes from than the abilities of the students it evaluates.

I am also acutely aware that there is a culture of silence around the fear and anxiety many parents and kids feel about the test.  NAPALM results add little to what we already know; that students from privileged, well resourced schools and backgrounds, with literate and educated parents, do well at the test. Which is probably why schools like the one my daughter attends have little objection to the test. It “reflects well” on us.

I get that tests are a part of the education system and will be a part of my daughter’s life. I have no objection to her participation in ballet or music exams and concerts. I think it is useful for her to see how this particular method of valuing learning operates while the stakes aren’t high. If I thought this exposure was scarring her for life, I would refrain. There is no Black Swanning in our house. But I am aware that at some point, tests will matter.

The insane privileging of meaningless, culturally loaded tests raises my blood pressure; I think back to the introduction of the VCE in Victoria as one particularly awful episode. Abandonment of the previous “exams only” HSC system was in part based on a professional recognition that an entire year’s learning and effort should not be reduced to a bunch of three hour exams, in which not all students perform well. As an improvement on this system, VCE was supposed to include tasks spread across the year (essays, pracs, etc) balanced by some exams. However examophiles terrified of cheating in school-based tasks lobbied for the General Achievement Test to moderate scores. It was a case of back to the drawing board, with yet another test loaded onto the top of an already stretched VCE curriculum.

But I digress. As a former secondary teacher, a current educational consultant, and a part-time academic, I was intrigued to find out more about the NAPALM. So one day, while out shopping, I was seduced into buying a practice NAPALM test just to see what it was like. My daughter thought it was great fun. Every now and then I suggested she pull out the book and work through various exercises. From a content perspective, I brought no expectations to the test; it was a learning exercise for me too.

As I corrected my daughter’s answers and read the "helpful" teaching dialogue at the end of each section, I experienced a rising sense of annoyance. The answers to a number of comprehension questions seemed arguable to me. I found the phraseology of some maths questions culturally loaded; that is, I could see certain maths teaching methods influenced the phrasing of the questions. But therein was the value of having the practice booklet; it was all about learning what the NAPALM experts considered ‘appropriate’ answers. I found myself swearing under my breath at the book.

When NAPALM Day finally arrived I packed my daughter off and told her I wished her well. I was intrigued to hear back about the test, both from her and from fellow parents. That afternoon I learned that the first day’s task was focussed on "persuasive writing". My daughter spends half her life persuading me to do what she wants, so I was reasonably confident about her ability to approach the task.

The set tasks apparently asked students to describe their hero. Brimming with pride, a friend told me that one of her children had selected Kevin Rudd ("because he said sorry to the Stolen Generations") while her second child selected my friend (his mother). I wondered if my own daughter’s interests would be so noble. Mothers and fathers were a common subject of the hero writing task. When I asked my daughter who she chose, she beamed with pride and said, "Matt Smith – who plays Dr Who – because he is nice and kind to the aliens, and because he is a hero for winning so many awards". I hope the NAPALM examiners are also able to see the wisdom of her choice.

My daughter continued, "My friend Connie picked Julia Gillard as her hero". "Why did she pick Julia Gillard," I asked. My daughter looked quizzicly towards the ceiling and replied, "I honestly don’t know". It would seem that the NAPALM also has special political polling powers, divined through the persuasive writing of Grade 3 children. Although Gillard can take comfort in knowing that, at least in the eyes of one Grade 3 girl, she is the hero of her own test.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.