There was no Naplan when I started teaching in 1990 at Doveton High, which was re-named Joseph Banks Secondary College as a way off shaking off the stigma associated with a suburb that had more than its fair share of disadvantage.
In spite of the blowups and meltdowns that punctuated the school week, we managed to keep those who were on the brink of giving up interested enough in learning to stay at school. We didn’t produce standout results, but we provided sufficient stimulus and a firm footing for life-long learning.
But as any teacher who has worked in such schools knows, it takes more than goodwill and energy to bring about meaningful change. It requires targeted support.
Julia Gillard, as education minister, understood this. And in 2008 introduced the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy (Naplan) as a way of identifying “black spots” in our education system.
Naplan – which rolls out tomorrow in schools across Australia – was intended as a diagnostic tool designed to acquire data, pinpoint deficiencies in education, and formulate an equitable funding formula in line with the now-defunct Gonski recommendations.
Data garnered from Naplan was intended to guide teacher training, shape curriculum, and inform resource distribution. No different, really, to a national health screening program designed to address the country’s health issues.
So, imagine a health clinic that uses national health data to market its business. Picture a clinic unfurling a banner that reads “Our cholesterol results are the lowest in the state,” or creating a digital advertisement that pops up on computer screens pronouncing “Hepatitis C rates at our clinic are the lowest in the developed economies worldwide!”
And what would we make of clinics that advise the seriously unwell to abstain from participating in a national screening program as a way of preserving its ranking? After all, they wouldn’t want the sick to tarnish their impeccable health record.
This is essentially what has become of Naplan. Visit the My School website and you will get a pretty good idea of how certain schools are using diagnostic data for marketing purposes.
Although Australian teachers work longer hours than their OCED counterparts, with lower secondary teachers working 821 hours per year compared to 694, and upper secondary working 812 per year compared to 643, much of their time is taken up by teaching to state mandated testing.
What’s more, the marketing role of Naplan has transformed some classrooms into an academic boot camp where teachers, in their role as trainers, drill students silly in readiness for game-day. One parent recently told me how her bright nine year-old boy who loves school appeared despondent after three weeks of continuous Naplan practice tests. As she put it: “a schedule of maddening testing and re-testing is sucking the life out of the things he enjoys at school.”
But according to some parents, such testing is not an entirely a bad thing. My sister, for instance, saw Naplan as a way of getting her daughters to work harder. As she put it, “it gave them structure, focus and a target to aim at”. No doubt, they are academically fitter for it, but to what end?
Teaching to Naplan is as effective as flossing for the first time days before a dental check-up or eating well before a health checkup. It’s a futile attempt to disguise any underlying problem.
There are far more effective ways of stimulating curiosity and checking for understanding. Teachers know this. But, I’m not sure if technocrats, politicians and school administrators do.
I have taught students who find formal testing torturous because they are unable or unwilling to swallow and regurgitate information on cue. They’re the type of student that results zealots talk out of sitting Naplan out of fear of damaging the school’s academic standing. After all, they wouldn’t want round pegs that refuse to slot into defined categories messing up the school’s fine reputation.
I recently asked the school psychologist why anxiety levels among children are on the rise. “Because they dread failure. And they don’t want to be shown up for it. It’s getting serious.”
I agree. Such heightened levels of anxiety can be traced back to primary school. A recent conversation with a parent who sends her boy to a reputable primary school spoke of raised anxiety levels in the lead up to school assembly where certificates are awarded to those who achieved a perfect score in the weekly spelling bee. As she said, “this will only get worse when children are pushed to excel in their first Naplan test”.
Another mum noted how the school principal often reminds students on how they won’t know how good they are unless they have a go at something new. But as this mum emphasised, most kids would have go if the stakes weren’t so high.
The Naplan stakes are far too high. They have transformed schools into something resembling a television cooking contest where success turns on tension, tears and tantrums. Who will survive to the next round? Who will go down? Who will be humiliated? And who will rise to the heights set by mediocre entertainers doubling as judges.
It’s not only students who feel the pressure. Anxious parents invest in books, computer programs and even hire coaches to help their kids compete in a program that has little education benefit other than to boost an industry that thrives on testing.
In light of this, parents ought to exercise their right to withdraw their kids from Naplan. Unless the government is prepared to implement a fairer assessment system and prevent data from being published in public forums such as the My School Website, Naplan will continue to create confusion, take up valuable class time, and place unnecessary pressure on students and parents.
I am glad that there was no Naplan at Doveton when I began my teaching career. It would have reinforced the school’s low ranking in the academic pecking order, and it would have diminished our chances of reaching kids that choose learning over jumping through hoops.
Author: Chris Fotinopoulos