As teachers prepare to administer NAPLAN tests again, we look at why this attempt to impose market-based “choice” in education is so disastrous

The NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests have only taken five years to poison every facet of the Australian public education system.

The NAPLAN league tables are entrenching inequality between schools and intensifying discrimination against poor students. The data is also used to blame teachers for declining standards and the deepening class divide in education.

But the high-stakes tests themselves are turning education into an artless and ineffectual routine of collecting test data and administering rote learning and revision. NAPLAN has to go.

It is NAPLAN season now (as we approach this year’s tests in May), and the madness of educational market mechanisms is even madder than usual. The MySchool league table, established by the Gillard Labor government, says that the publication of NAPLAN results will empower “consumers”—they mean parents—to make “informed” enrolment decisions. And so “the market” is meant to whip lower-ranked schools to push harder, and so education standards will rise. Schools that demonstrate NAPLAN “growth” will be rewarded with extra scraps of federal funding. That’s the theory.

But in reality, competition over MySchool rankings is driving the most discriminatory educational practices ever seen Australia.

To rig the test results, some principals will compile lists of children to pressure into being absent on the day of the NAPLAN tests because their results will drag down the school average. Some parents will be getting a call or letter suggesting that their child will be “too stressed out”, so they’d best be withdrawn.

At some Melbourne schools, principals distribute exemption forms, meant for children with diagnosed intellectual disabilities, to so-called “low performers”.

The scramble to make weaker students disappear for the few days of NAPLAN is discriminatory enough—Aboriginal children, refugees and children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be the “low performers” stigmatised as being too dumb for NAPLAN. But exclusion from the tests is just the final element in a cycle that keeps poor students out of the education loop.

Education researcher Professor Richard Teese points out that the MySchool principle of consumer choice is concentrating the least mobile and most disadvantaged children into the same schools.Wealthy-enough aspirational families are moving to enrol their children in government schools that look better on MySchool. There is also a steady drift of wealthy families to private schools.

Poverty does not have to have to be a major impediment to learning. With proper funding, children from low socio-economic backgrounds in schools with a mix of children from different backgrounds do well at school despite their disadvantage. But in schools with a high concentration of poor students, the average child is two years behind their counterpart at a high socio-economic background school. Of course, the ludicrous funding model that sees more federal funding go to private schools than public schools only makes this worse.

No wonder international assessments are showing declining results and a growing social divide in Australian education. The market model of schooling is pushing these kids and their schools onto the scrap heap.

Blaming teachers

NAPLAN also provides the perfect excuse for the government’s failure on funding. Education Minister Peter Garrett, and Julia Gillard, talk about school and teacher accountability to distract attention from the government’s failure to provide fair funding.

Right-wing journalist Miranda Devine has put the finger on teachers more bluntly, “…Which teachers are adding little value year on year to the students in their classroom? NAPLAN knows.”

But NAPLAN knows nothing. The scores are meaningless. When the results emerge five months later, all the test reveals is how well teachers were able to teach to the test. They say nothing—because they do not ask—about real learning and creative thinking skills.

They reveal nothing about why students achieved well—or didn’t. And statistically, they are utterly unreliable. NAPLAN’s margin of error in the test is huge. Professor Margaret Wu has pointed out that NAPLAN will show 16 per cent of scores going backwards, even when the literacy and numeracy skills of those children are actually improving.

NAPLAN does not reflect how well students are learning. It does show that there is an enormous gap between rich and poor schools. But we don’t need millions of dollars spent on NAPLAN to tell us that!

The likes of Liberal shadow Minister, Christopher Pyne, are pushing the idea that schools and teachers are to blame for disadvantage in the education system, “It’s not about equity, it’s about the outcomes of our poor students who aren’t being given the right education in the first place.”

Some pro-NAPLAN principals are also reproaching students and teachers for not trying hard enough. “Disadvantage is our starting point—but we don’t make excuses based on that,” said the principal of a Melbourne’s North West school to The Age. Her catchphrase echoes the “no excuses” mantra of the charter schools in the US that are being used as examples for Australia to follow.

The charter schools are privately run schools for poor students that unsuccessfully attempt to overcome social disadvantage through “high expectations”. No allowance is made for different cultures, languages, learning styles, learning rates, disabilities or social problems. Administrations drive the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality by imposing teacher performance pay and longer hours in school.

The truth is that whether in the United States, or Australia, driving teachers harder cannot compensate for the millions of dollars of education cuts, huge funding inequality, the concentration of poverty, not to mention the steeply rising cost of living and diminishing wages.

Urging teachers “not to make excuses” for their inability to eliminate the differences between the scores of wealthy and poor students actually means making excuses for government neglect.

Narrow curriculum

NAPLAN and the distrust of teachers is brutalising the curriculum. The “teach-to-the-test” nonsense of NAPLAN is spoiling more and more classroom teaching time.

In the run up to the test, teachers are throwing the usual lessons out the window, and prioritising lessons in carefully filling in bubbles for multiple-choice exams. A thousand cookie cutter essays on dull-as-dishwater subjects, like “why smoking is wrong” will be written and rewritten under test conditions.

Maths classes are descending into practice tests, and practice test correction. Reading at this stage doesn’t mean novels and stories to get lost in; it means memorising vocabulary, memorising parts of speech, and endless drills in sequencing events from a text into chronological order.

As Australian conductor Richard Gill puts it in the “No to NAPLAN” papers, “activities used in teaching NAPLAN tests destroy individuality, stifle creativity, stultify thought and make all children respond in the same way—a sort of educational circus in which the children are the trained animals and the teachers the poorly paid ringmasters.”

Teachers resent the time wasted preparing for NAPLAN, but principals threaten the jobs of teachers who refuse to administer the lunatic cramming regime.

Federal government National Partnership money is awarded to select disadvantaged and low performing schools if they improve on their NAPLAN results. But it is a vicious circle; to keep improving on NAPLAN results, more time must be spent rote learning NAPLAN skills.

So the schools that win the extra funding end up spending it on data coaches and analysts who are skilled at enhancing test results, further entrenching a data/test culture.

Starting with NAPLAN, but following with on-demand tests, general achievement tests, pre-tests and practice tests, a plethora of commercial reading and numeracy tests, school based tests standardised across grades—all are administered to test-weary students, and the results are entered into spreadsheets. The teachers are then grilled, “How are you going to move your data?”

Find a test and teach to it—that is the new curriculum. Lessons that promote deep thinking, creativity, challenging real world problems and collaborative work are seen as the silly habits of nostalgic teachers. The idea that teachers would tailor lessons to engage their students’ interests and fire their enthusiasm is far too out of step with the pursuit of the number-crunchers.

Not only are politicians blaming teachers for bad results, they are creating an education system where bad teaching and shallow learning is rewarded.

The rebellion against testing

In the US standardised testing and the attacks on public education have pushed teachers, parents and students to rebel. The teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle have taken the brave stand of all refusing to administer MAP tests (their NAPLAN equivalent).

They have stood firm against threats of suspension. Backed by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), students in a series of schools have led their own protests. A National Day of Action was held on 6 February in solidarity with the Seattle teachers.

We need a similar fight back here. The campaign to Boycott NAPLAN is starting to gather support. Some 140 academics have thus far signed a letter of support for the Coalition of Literacy Educators’ “No to NAPLAN” campaign.

The signatories are “appalled at the way in which the Commonwealth government has moved to a high stakes testing regime…despite international evidence that such approaches do not improve children’s learning outcomes”.

A public meeting of the Boycott NAPLAN campaign in Melbourne discussed how teachers and parents could distribute the NAPLAN withdrawal forms and encourage parents at their schools to withdraw their child from NAPLAN in protest.

To get the forms visit www.literacyeducators.com.au/index.php/naplan

To get in touch with the campaign contact:

Boycott Naplan Campaign Melbourne Lucy 0404 728 104;

Sydney Activist Teachers Network, http://activistteacher.com, call John 0409 777 173

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