Is NAPLAN a high-stakes test? No, says Barry, but I say Yes

According to Professor Barry McGaw, Chair of ACARA, NAPLAN is not a high stakes test.[1]

He made this comment in response to a study[2] released by the Whitlam Institute claiming that NAPLAN testing is being treated as a high-stakes program and that this has led to unacceptable levels of stress for students and a narrowing and a distortion of what is taught in classrooms across Australia

McGaw’s attempt to ‘set the record straight’ about this relied on the following facts:

  • Testing students competence in basic skills in Australia  as been going on for many years – in NSW since 1989
  •  The tests are not onerous or intrusive – they occur 4 times in the life of a student spread over a few days and each lasting only a few hours
  • They just don’t compare to high stakes tests such as year 12 exams or the long eliminated years of primary exams – student futures do not rest on the outcomes
  •  While there have been irresponsible attempts to create league tables there a have been strong steps taken to counter this.  MySchool only compares schools with schools with similar demographic intakes.

I don’t disagree with any of these points and I could add that as currently organised  NAPLAN results do not appear to directly impact the teachers’ performance review process or the future of any particular school.  In this sense we are different from most US states where Race To The Top has forced education reform in this direction

Now I use the word appear because there have been hints that this may not be the case now and may not always be the case in the future.

In relation to school closures, the closing of the Steiner stream at the Footscray school in Victoria was in part justified in terms of concerns about NAPLAN results. Similarly, in Queensland the decision to defund the school for travelling children was also justified on this basis.  This does not yet equate to a strong relationship between NAPLAN results and school closure decisions.

When it comes to teacher performance reviews the details are still a little unclear.

The DEEWR fact sheet[3] on this matter states that “Under the new performance and development framework all teachers will participate in an annual appraisal process ….The framework will set out the aspects of a teacher’s performance that will be assessed and will include such aspects as lesson observations, student results, parental feedback, and contribution to the school community. “ (my emphasis)

AITSL, the organisation tasked with developing the framework has released a performance and development Framework document which was endorsed by Ministers of Education in August 2012. [4] In this document it states under “A focus on student outcomes” that this is not about simplistic approaches “that tie evaluation of teaching directly to single outcome measures” and that this Framework “defines student outcomes broadly to include student learning, engagement in learning and wellbeing, and acknowledges that these can be measured in a variety of ways”.

So it appears that the worst element of Value Added Measures approach are not going to be an explicit part of the Teacher Performance and Review Process. at least not yet.  Of course, if there is a change of Government, My Pyne has already flagged that this is the path he will take us down[5].

So what does all this mean?  The arguments presented here to date appear to suggest that indeed NAPLAN is not a high stakes test and that perhaps McGaw is correct when he argues that, if teaching has been effected and students made to feel stress it is entirely on the head of teachers ,who are test cramming for no apparent reason.[6]

However there is another factor that McGaw has not considered.  Even if the publication of NAPLAN results does not become tied to teacher evaluations; does not result in school closures: and is not ever again presented in league table format on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, it is a high stakes test because of our unique and regressive school funding and hyper school choice policies and practices, that pit schools against one another for ‘favourable enrolments’

Indeed this was an explicit intent behind the decision to go down the school transparency reform route.  When former PM Kevin Rudd announced his new transparency agenda in August 2008 at the National Press Club, it is reported that he said to journalists after his speech that, if after seeing their schools performance data “… some [parents] walk with their feet that’s exactly what the system is designed to do.[7]

Now if our school set up was like that of Finland where the vast majority of students go to their local school and there is a high level of buy in and confidence in schools, this new transparency might not have had a big impact.  But our school set up is very different.  And it is different in a way that makes our schools very different from each other.

Not only is school resourcing not delivering equal quality of educational servicing, but schools serve very different communities and these combined factors contribute to wide disparities in school outcomes.

For parents of students attending the most concentrated of high need schools – the most socially and economically marginalised school parent bodies, the logic of parent power and school choice, as a response to NAPLAN comparative information, does not apply.  The 75 schools with ICSEA values below 800[8] (mostly small remote schools for Indigenous students) are not likely to experience much in the way of  ‘white middle class flight’ There are almost none to fly and no school alternative, apart from distance education. These parents don’t have a choice and are unlikely to lead the charge about unacceptable student performance.  This is not an effective lever for school improvement for these schools.

But schools with ICSEA scores between 800 and 1000 serve low to middle low SES communities where the parent demography can be more diverse.  I predict that these schools must worry about losing those parents and students with the highest economic and social capital.  These schools need active articulate, high expectation parents but may well lose them as they choose moving rather than improving.  They also lose these students. This serves to further concentrate the social mix of the student body with quite well known and predictable effects on student performance outcomes.

This is why Australia is a global leader in the extent to which our test results show the influence of what is known as student effect.

The effect of the decision to publish individual school test results has been to imply to parents that the responsibility for ensuring high school quality for all children – actually the responsibility of Government  – has in a sense been transferred to individual parents.  It is now their responsibility to choose the best option in terms of their child’s individual benefit.  To fail to do so is to be a somewhat neglectful parent.

What particularly saddens me about this is that the role of parents in schools has been an important civil society tradition. The local school in a local community used to be seen as ‘our school’, educating ‘our kids’.  This was rich local social capital.  It was a tradition based on enlightened self interest – of seeing the benefits in working, not just for the educational benefits for our own children,  but in working to ensure that education  works to build the kind of world they desire all children to inherit.

The publication of NAPLAN results has taken us further into the market model of schooling.  The school autonomy agenda will intensify this.  And this is the reason why NAPLAN is experienced as a high stakes test with all of the negative consequences.


[6] “If NAPLAN is being made high-stakes for students, with some reported to be anxious and even ill when the tests approach, this is due to teachers transferring stress to their students.”  The Conversation 11057

[8] Barry McGaw, “The Expectations Have it” in Phillip Hughes (Ed) Achieving Quality Education for All, Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific Region and Beyond, Springer 2013 p. 107

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