Most educational institutions in Australia have a ‘tag line’ — a statement that is supposed to be a pithy description of what the entire school community believes in. It isn’t surprising that a lot of the ‘tag lines’ have something to do with recognising the individual talents of each student and working with those talents to develop self-reliance and the ability to cope with whatever circumstances arise in the future. In other words, a lot of educational organisations claim that each student is a unique individual, with recognition made for the different life skills, aspirations and capabilities in their future lives — and is treated as such.
So to assist the educators in respecting each child as an individual, we as a society make the million or so Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students in the country sit a standardised test
every year. Counterintuitive isn’t it? The testing takes place over thee days (in 2015 the dates were 12, 13 and 14 May) and is called NAPLAN
is standardised testing ‘supports good teaching, valuable data and school improvement
’. The data is also used on the Myschool
website. According to the NAPLAN website:
NAPLAN is not a test of content. Instead, it tests skills in literacy and numeracy that are developed over time through the school curriculum. Excessive test preparation using previous tests is not useful.
So what is standardised testing? Wikipedia
will tell you that:
A standardi[s]ed test is a test that is administered and scored in a consistent, or "standard", manner. Standardi[s]ed tests are designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent and are administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner.
Standardised testing has a place in society. Medicine is put through a number of standardised tests prior to release to ensure that the health benefits outweigh any short or long term negative effect. Vehicles are crashed into concrete walls around the world to assess their safety should the vehicle unfortunately replicate the incident on the road with people inside it. Food, drink and many other substances are also tested to reduce or eliminate ill effects. Generally speaking, science knows that if a person ingests a known quantity of a pain relieving medication, it will perform certain actions in the body to give the effect of less pain. It’s the same with food, drink, detergents and so on — there is a certain amount of chemical that is considered to give a beneficial effect with little or no adverse side effects. Modern vehicles with engineered crumple zones and airbags also protect a human’s biology, so they can walk away from a crash that in the past would have caused severe injury or death.
That our medicine, motor vehicles, food, drink and other substances are subject to standardised testing is to be applauded and ensures our safety. Testing at this level also looks at our biology and how it interacts with external influence — not how our intellect is affected with stimulus.
If every school student in Australia were being prepared to be a statistician, standardised testing would be a useful method to ascertain if progress was being made. You could also argue that if everyone in Australia was a statistician, there would be a lot of necessary work that wouldn’t be done — and we probably don’t need more statisticians in any event.
Australians have a large variety of roles and obligations. While the country does need statisticians, we also need farmers, transport operators, sales assistants, office workers, teachers and a host of other professions. You might be able to argue that we also need politicians — after all ‘someone’s got to do it’!
Although we need a variety of people with different skills to run our society, there is probably an argument for the imposition of a standardised test across the country to determine that people can read, write and have a degree of numeracy as they leave school. Which would be fine if that’s all it was used for.
A few paragraphs earlier, I mentioned that the NAPLAN results are being fed into the school data that are freely available on the Federal Government’s Myschool
website. Humans are a competitive species; accordingly, some will look for any advantage to give their children a perceived competitive edge. While the Myschool
website is not supposed to be a ranking table
… the results have now become an informal selection test, taken into consideration by schools when accepting new students. For another, schools and parents have come to regard the test results as an absolute measure of education delivery.
The logic that your child will obtain a certain result because similar results were achieved in previous years is fatally flawed as it doesn’t take into account the very real probability that different cohorts of students have different abilities and skills, despite the educators teaching to the same script. Again, each person is an individual. If for example, the school that Einstein or Steven Hawking attended was subject to the NAPLAN process, it is likely that the result would be skewed as the particular cohort went through the school; others would have excelled as well due to the interaction between Hawking or Einstein and those around them on a daily basis.
If we are testing mathematical ability, standardised testing may have some validity — after all if the answer is 42, it is what it is. The only variable is if the student showed how they worked it out, or guessed the answer. While numeracy is tested, so is the student’s reading, writing and language (spelling, grammar and punctuation). Writing on the Fairfax website, Emily Frawley suggests
NAPLAN's persuasive writing tasks do not showcase the skills teachers value nor those students need to master.
There would be a great deal of difficulty in ensuring standardised marking when it comes to persuasive writing for a test administered across Australia. While there would have to be a moderation system in place at the end of the day, most students would have a result based upon one educator’s view of their writing ability. Those that write professionally (and amateurs like me) will tell you that, while there is considerable thought put into each piece of persuasive writing, each reader will approach the writing differently, taking a different message from the text.
So do teachers teach what the student will need in real life or do they teach for the test? While you would like to hope that the NAPLAN was used in the way it was intended, evidence would suggest that some believe it is the be all and end all of education in Australia. The government body that oversees NAPLAN does have some practice papers on the website but will not release past papers (claiming copyright). There are however plenty of others that will step into the breach when there is a perceived need in the market, as this discussion on the Whirlpool Internet forum
While schools can use the NAPLAN data to improve teaching practices for their students
, parents have the right to withdraw their children from NAPLAN testing. The ACT Education Directorate
is concerned about the high number of parents doing so in the ACT (they claim it is due to a philosophical objection). The ABC however suggests there could be other factors at play here
. The High School Principal’s association
has called for the removal of NAPLAN data from the Myschool
website to reduce the possibility of the NAPLAN results being used as the sole determinant of future schooling by some parents.
Perhaps the Year 3 teachers at St Paul’s Primary School in Gracemere, Queensland, have the right approach. It has been reported widely that they gave their students the following note
The NAPLAN Letter
To our dearest students from Year 3,
Next week you will sit your first Naplan test. Before you take this test there is something very important for you to know.
This test does not assess all of what makes each of you exceptional and unique.
The people that score these tests don't know that some of you love to sing, are good at drawing or can teach others how to use a computer program. They have not seen the way that some of you can dance with grace or speak confidently to a large group. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them when they are sad. They do not know that you participate in sports, help your mum and dad or that you play with your little brother, sister or cousins. They do not know that you are caring, thoughtful and that everyday you do your best. Because these attributes cannot be tested.
The scores you get from this test will tell you how you did on that day, but they will not tell you everything. They can't tell you that you have improved on something that you once found difficult. They can't tell you that you brighten up your teacher's day. They can't tell you how amazingly special you are.
So come to school ready to do your best for the Naplan test and remember there is no one way to 'test' all of the wonderful things that make you, YOU!
Mrs Egan, Mrs Schluter and Miss Bailey
While the note is alleged to be based on a similar item some years ago that originated in the USA, it is a sharp reminder that all the million or so students that recently sat the NAPLAN program in 2015 do have talents, skills and the right to the education they need to be their best. We can’t all be rocket scientists (or statisticians); not all of us have the skills or the desire. We all do have the skills and abilities to be an effective member of our community and wider society. Testing is probably a part of the process. Isn’t it better for well trained professional teachers to assess the capabilities of each student in their charge and implement strategies based on the individual teacher and/or their colleagues’ experience to bring out each students best?
What do you think?
While NAPLAN has become an integral part of our education system, is 2353 right in suggesting we are misusing it? Did the government make a mistake when it included the NAPLAN data on the Myschool website? Let us know what you think about NAPLAN.
Next week Ken looks at the Greek debt crisis and sees embedded in it a battle between capitalism and democracy in his piece, ‘The unhappy marriage of democracy and capitalism’.