CHRIS BONNOR. NAPLAN has just turned ten. So what?

Aug 8, 2017

NAPLAN is not unlike some kids I have known: conceived in haste as a result of a rush of blood, a bit of an erratic upbringing (from a variety of guardians), confusion as to purpose in life and fervent hopes that he/she/it will turn out right in the end. Each year there is a birthday, accompanied by a mixture of hand wringing, pious hopes and future plans that might show it was all worthwhile.

NAPLAN has its good points: we need to assess school students on what they know and what they need to know – and to ensure that teachers act on the information the assessment provides. From memory basic skills testing began, certainly in NSW, in the mid 1990s when Bob Carr (the education premier who also apparently invented homework) introduced them. Yes, the idea was centuries old but much of the analysis and follow-up was new. Just as important, the results were kept within schools for the purpose of improving student achievement.

A decade later the NAPLAN child-thing was conceived on a national scale. The tests were (and are) excellent, and provide invaluable information (albeit months later) for schools and teachers. But the focus on student achievement was elevated beyond the school to the national level and the purpose of NAPLAN was hijacked by the politicians. They were driven by the economic imperative of education and the need for Australia to perform on the international school scale.

According to their script the pathway to this lay in publishing school NAPLAN scores for all to see – and hence drive school improvement through school choice and competition. To enable this to happen they launched the My School website so that parents could shop around and, in Julia Gillard’s words, go and rouse on their child’s school principal if the school wasn’t achieving.

In effect NAPLAN became part of the neo-liberal agenda for schools. There have been many consequences for schools and the nation – including a lack of any significant measurable improvement in student achievement. Every NAPLAN August birthday is accompanied by stories about plateauing achievement, winning and losing States, apportioning of blame and entreaties to do better. NAPLAN test scores are resembling what international testing is saying about student achievement in Australia.

The unhappy consequences are well-known. In effect the high-stakes recurrent testing of students across a narrow range of domains is redefining what schools are and do. NAPLAN is less a tool to support learning and is increasingly becoming the purpose of schooling itself. It impacts on the subjects offered (goodbye cultural electives, hello basics ad infinitum) to the relationships between professionals and between schools. It distorts priorities at all levels. Even the much vaunted competition between schools becomes less about improving school quality and more about capturing the inputs (especially the right students) that will produce the best results.

Some say that scoring high in NAPLAN tests amounts to a solid preparation for success. But disconnected drilling to score well in tests isn’t learning for life. The tests and the school cultures they create do little to engender a love of learning and what goes with it: relevance, connectedness, resilience and a belief that when your world falls apart learning can help put it back together – especially in our unpredictable and rapidly changing job market.

The key to effective learning is engagement. Without this engagement not much else will happen, including NAPLAN improvements. There is now ample evidence of critical levels of disengagement between schools and their students, but few are joining the dots between this mounting crisis and a worsening, not only of NAPLAN results, but of the existing measures of disengagement including in student behaviour, attendance and retention…and achievement. Small wonder that the best innovations in schools focus on engagement – almost in defiance of the depressing NAPLAN teaching/training culture.

Of course there are ironies surrounding the current predominance of NAPLAN testing and the availability of the school-level results on My School. In contrast to the scores released each year by ACARA and the ‘sporting competition’ reporting of these in the media, a deeper analysis shows a worsening of two key problems that won’t see NAPLAN or much else improving in the short term.

The first is the divergence not only between States but between the achievers – who aren’t doing much better – and the strugglers who are doing worse. This problem is now institutionalized in our framework of schools. It increasingly consigns the strugglers to our most disadvantaged schools, something which has to stop if we are to lift overall levels of achievement. All the testing and measurement in the world won’t lift these kids.

The second is the endemic nature of disengagement in our schools at all levels, regardless of location, sector and class. It goes to the heart of underachievement and challenges the effectiveness of how we actually do school. The way out of this is to rethink why we have schools in the first place, what designs of learning exist that will touch all students and how we can make it happen….and amidst all this, what is the role and purpose of any testing?

There might be some light on the horizon in the form of the Gonski 2.0 Review. It has been tasked with examining evidence and making recommendations on the most effective teaching and learning strategies and initiatives to be deployed in our schools. Sounds good: almost in the class of letting a thousand flowers bloom. But then comes the killer: all this is in the context of improving student outcomes and Australia’s national performance, as measured by national and international assessments of student achievement.

The tail will just go on wagging the dog. Get ready for another ten years of unhappy NAPLAN birthdays.

Chris Bonnor is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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