Undertaking numeracy and literacy tests at all schools around Australia (NAPLAN), and then publishing the results on the My School website, continues to rouse both defenders and critics because the proverbial report card on My School is mixed.
The bureaucrats responsible for organising NAPLAN and the groups of sixty like schools continue to use the diagnosis defence. They praise the way publication of NAPLAN results can inform diagnosis of educational problems at particular schools compared to their like schools. Poorly performing teachers can no longer hide behind the social background of their disadvantaged students to explain their poor results when they are poorer than other students from the same background.
The current Minister of Education, Peter Garret, is keen on the diagnosis defence for My School. No doubt, Christopher Pyne or any future Minister will use it too.
An obvious problem with the diagnosis defence is that it is unnecessary to publish the NAPLAN data. Bureaucrats and school leaders already use more detailed and timely evidence about school performance than the NAPLAN data. The relatively shallow information and the long delay between the tests at Easter and the publication on My School at Christmas means principals and teachers do not bother looking up the website.
Critics of NAPLAN and My School, including the Australian Education Union, many academics, and many working teachers make several criticisms. One is that My School is a populist vote-winner, much like Fuel Watch and Grocery Watch, which the ALP also promised before the 2007 elections. All three websites promised to improve consumer information, in order to promote greater competition among suppliers, and in turn promote the delivery of better products and services. The obvious problem with this is that education fits poorly with market forces. Education is a complex interaction between students’ personal development, skill training, and self discipline on the one hand, and teachers’ professional preparation, nurturing of curiosity, and pushing of students to improve on the other. But everyone understands the theory that perfect information in a perfect market promotes efficiency so more information about school performance makes sense to most voters.
Another criticism is that My School relies on large corporations’ techniques for employee management. Rather than worrying about class size, teachers’ qualifications, or the distribution of school funding, (“inputs” into the educational process), the ideas is to audit how well teachers actually teach by testing numeracy and literacy of students (“outputs” from the educational process). Using NAPLAN to audit school outputs gives taxpayers a measure of value for money. A primary motivation for both Kevin Rudd’s “education revolution” and now Julia Gillard’s endorsement of the Gonski recommendations is that Australian numeracy and literacy results are slipping compared to not only Finland and East Asian countries but also Canada, New Zealand, Britain, and Scandinavia more generally.
The teachers and principals I have interviewed have no problem with their performance being audited and published. They are taxpayers too of course and they send their own children to school.
The problem with auditing school performance is that evidence from America and Britain (where testing is much more prevalent) shows that it has bad unintended consequences; and the more detailed the audit, the worse the consequences. If anything is at stake (school funding, the school’s standing among parents, teachers’ pay, promotion possibilities, standing among colleagues in the staff room), then there will be many temptations to fudge things (teach to the test, coach test-sitting techniques, downgrade or spend less time on subjects not tested, encourage poor students to be absent on test days). Outright cheating is less of a worry than the more insidious effect of narrowing the curriculum. School becomes more boring for students, and less advantaged students more difficult for teachers to engage with, as schools and teacher worry more about the auditing of their outputs. Here the contrast between the US experience of extensive high-stakes testing and declining test results compared to all other rich countries, and the Finnish experience of more trust in teachers’ professionalism, very little testing, and the most successful education in the world is key evidence for critics of My School in Australia.
Fortunately, My School forbids newspapers ranking schools' performance in league tables that unhelpfully shame schools in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods. This reduces the stakes attached to tests. To improve, My School needs to promote the intelligent use of testing. This might entail a shift away from whole school performance towards information about individual students, available only to each student, their parents and their teachers. Such use of NAPLAN would not improve market competitiveness but it would reinforce rather than undermine teachers' professionalism.
The article was first published in the Geelong Advertiser