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NAPLAN testing, teacher bans, and the prospect of ‘league tables’ May 1, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics.
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from Associate Professor Steve Wilson

The temperature is rising as both the Australian and NSW governments insist that the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) testing should go ahead in May. This is despite teacher union threats to ban teacher participation in the testing because the test results, published on the My School web site for the first time this year, have led to the construction and publication of school rankings or ‘league tables’ in national print media.

 So, who is right? Our governments, which are committed to making school performance data public through the My School government web site? Or the teacher unions, who cite overseas experiences of how ‘league tables’ are used in a misinformed way to denigrate the performance of schools, teachers and students in low socio-economic status communities?

 The answer is that they are both right, but that ultimately there is a higher principle to be considered which strongly suggests that teachers should not impede the national testing program. This principle relates to the availability of information in a democratic society, and the right of the public to access data of all sorts, including data about schools and student academic achievement.

 Clearly, ‘league tables’ are simplistic (they only report results in basic literacy and numeracy, and clumsily attempt to rank schools on a simplistic and narrow construction of academic quality). Because of this, schools that have more students from educationally advantaged backgrounds inevitably look better in these tables. ‘League tables’ are open to misuse and abuse when their limitations are concealed or remain unexplained. Additionally, the NAPLAN tests do not capture many of the outcomes schools strive to achieve and which are very valuable to young people – creativity, their physical and emotional development and so on. However, though it could clearly be improved, the current NAPLAN testing regime is internationally applied and accepted, and it is quite correct for governments to conduct these tests to have some measure of educational outcomes. After all, we make a huge investment in our education systems, and all young people rely on its success to secure their own futures.

 Some of the concerns about the most recent ‘league tables’ published in Australia will be overcome by the  fact that, in future, the My School site will publish student ‘academic growth’ data – the progress students have made – rather than simply comparing performance data in which the most advantaged schools and students often do well. This is a welcome improvement as it will enable the recognition of every poor school which adds value to its students’ learning. From now on, any media outlet which continues to publish ‘performance’ tables, and ignores ‘improvement’ data, will be discredited.

Irrespective of this, we do need to defend and support the NAPLAN and My School systems, which allow us to have access to valid data about our schools and to make our own judgements. Teachers should not try to force the government to stop the media publishing results from the My School site. It would be far better if they contributed their energies to making the public more aware of, and more critical of, the dangers of simplistic ‘league tables’. Teachers should help empower us to effectively interpret educational data – not obstruct our access to it. We need to be educated – not subject to censorship. This is the key principle in this debate.

Comments»

1. Jo - May 1, 2010

The suggestion that teachers might refuse to administer the NAPLAN tests because they don’t want the information published on the MySchool website is plain misleading.

Their objections are that the government will do nothing to prevent the exploitation of that data by the media (under existing copyright legislation) and that the way that ‘like’ schools are determined on the website is misleading. Teachers encourage parents to take an active interest in their school and teachers welcome all discussion about academic programs and performance.

The MySchool website itself is incomplete (by Julia Gillard’s own admission) and will only truly provide an accurate portrayal of a school’s performance with a huge volume of additional data – at the very least an inclusion of all sources of funding for the schools. This will never happen because it will only serve to demonstrate the complete inequity that exists in our education system.


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