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Issue #1596      June 5, 2013

Fighting for equity in education

Yes, there is something fishy about NAPLAN (and My School)

A social media outcry a month ago forced the withdrawal of a television commercial linking a children’s fish-extract supplement to success in the NAPLAN tests. Television advertisements for Nature’s Way Kids Smart Omega-3 Fish Oil supplements finished with a reminder to parents that “NAPLAN testing starts May 14”. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported that a Kids Smart ad placed on a website also included the slogan “Key ingredients for NAPLAN results and a healthy future”.

The commercial was met with a howl of protest on Twitter and Facebook. The Daily Telegraph reported that education and health experts called the ads “unethical” and “opportunistic” and parents called it a “ploy that advertises to people’s fears”. The ad was quickly withdrawn.

The incident reveals just how important NAPLAN tests have become in schools. A whole industry is being built around the tests that plays on parent fears and aspirations and the pressure on schools to improve their results.

Schools practice tests for much of the first semester of school, some even start at the end of the year prior to NAPLAN, and parents are encouraged to practice for NAPLAN at home with their children. NAPLAN practice booklets are amongst the biggest selling education texts – you can even buy them in the local supermarket. Demand is so great that some publishers cannot keep up.

Many parents are having their children tutored after school for NAPLAN. Just Google “NAPLAN tutors” and you get 80,000 results. Privately-run NAPLAN workshops, including for Year 3 children, were widespread this year during first term holidays. Some schools and teachers refer children to private tutoring centres.

None of this was happening before My School. Standardised tests have been in place in some states for over 20 years and nationally-based tests have operated since 1999. They were treated as a low stakes exercise in schools that provided an additional source of information to parents and schools.

High stakes

NAPLAN is now “high-stakes”. It is high stakes because school NAPLAN results are published on the My School website and are used to publish partial or full league tables of school results in newspapers. School reputations now depend on NAPLAN results. They also put the reputations and careers of principals and teachers on the line.

Money now hinges on NAPLAN results as well. Federal government reward payments have been provided to state/territory governments for improving their NAPLAN results. Federal bonuses are to be paid to schools and teachers for improving NAPLAN results. The Victorian and Queensland governments want to introduce performance pay for teachers based in part on NAPLAN results. All this has led to corruption and rorting of results overseas.

Substantial harm is being done as a result of this “high stakes” role of NAPLAN.

Parents are being conned into paying out hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to get their children tutored for NAPLAN just so schools can say they are above the national average or better than the school down the road. Not only is it a waste of money, but it places considerable stress on young children about the tests and robs them of valuable play-time after school.

Many parents seem intent on following the East Asian “tiger mother” syndrome of hours of homework and tutoring in the pursuit of education success above all else, even the physical and mental health of their children. One only has to look at the epidemic of myopia and high levels of stress amongst children in East Asian countries to see the consequences of intense focus on after-school education.

Many young children in Australia are experiencing high levels of stress as a result of the prominence given to NAPLAN in schools. A University of Melbourne survey found significant numbers of parents raising concerns about the impact of the tests on their children’s well-being.

Nearly 70 percent of teachers said that they had heard from individual parents about stressed children, particularly amongst primary-aged children. Over 40 percent of teachers reported having had concerns raised by parents regarding their child’s ability to sleep as a consequence of the tests. Thirty-six percent reported parents had raised problems of students feeling sick before the test, with almost one quarter reporting that multiple families had identified this issue.

It has also been reported that NAPLAN testing is one of the causes of an increase in childhood anxiety observed by community counsellors.

Some schools have made gains in NAPLAN results in some Year levels and learning domains since 2008. However, these gains may be artificial and simply the result of the intense test preparation that now goes on in schools and private tutoring centres.

Breadth and depth

They also appear to be at the expense of breadth and depth in learning. There is evidence that the curriculum is being narrowed to allow more time for test preparation, that there is more teaching to the test, and more drilling and rote learning in the classroom. For example, a survey of teachers by researchers at the University of Melbourne last year reported that 75 percent of teachers say that they now teach to the test because of the focus on the NAPLAN tests and 70 percent say that less time is now spent on other subjects in schools. About 55 percent said that the focus on NAPLAN had narrowed the range of teaching strategies they use.

About 55 percent of primary teachers said they practised tests at least once a week for five months before the tests, including 10 percent who practised daily for the whole five months. About 35 percent of secondary teachers said they practised tests at least once a week for the five months.

Another survey of teachers in South Australia and Western Australia by researchers at Murdoch University also found that NAPLAN has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, and a negative classroom environment that lowers student engagement and does not cater for the needs of individual students. In this survey, 77 percent of teachers reported that preparation for the NAPLAN tests are taking time away from other curriculum areas. Fifty percent of teachers said that they felt forced to give dull, repetitive lessons because of NAPLAN.

Although these surveys were limited in scope and the respondents self-selected, they provide more evidence than hitherto available and confirm extensive anecdotal evidence of the impact of reporting school NAPLAN results on My School. They are also consistent with the experience with test-based accountability in England and the United States.

So, there is something “fishy” about NAPLAN and My School. They were promoted as the way to better student results, but the gains may be artificial and at the expense of a balanced education and lifestyle for young children.

Last year, the consumer group Choice awarded its Shonky award to another Nature’s Way Kids Smart product – its Natural Medicine range for children. Perhaps this year’s Shonky award should go to NAPLAN and My School!

Save Our Schoolssaveourschools.com.au  

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