With the NAPLAN season once again upon us, JO EARP reports on predictions the Australian education system is flirting with disaster.
DANGER lurks — that was the ominous warning delivered by US professor David Berliner when he talked about the negative impact of high stakes testing during a visit to Tasmania.
Recounting the damaging effects of almost a decade of mandatory high stakes testing in the US, he also had a hunch that Australia might be heading down the same path with NAPLAN.
“The disease we have could spread,” he warned. “Stuff drifts over from England and the United States ... and you need to design your system differently and you need to fight for that.”
Berliner, of Arizona State University, isn’t the only dissenting voice — there is a groundswell of opinion from concerned academics, education campaigners, teachers and principals.
In the UK, standardised assessment tests have been running for more than 20 years. The naming and shaming of schools through published league tables is now an annual media event, leading to thousands of schools in England boycotting tests in recent years.
Under the No Child Left Behind act made law by US President George W Bush in 2002, federally funded schools there must carry out standardised annual tests from Grade 3 to 8. Students, schools and individual teachers are rightly or wrongly labelled successes or failures based on the results.
By contrast, the Australian education system is at the start of its journey. Launched in 2008, NAPLAN is still a relatively new assessment tool and there is debate as to whether the tests can be categorised as high stakes.
A survey by the Australian Primary Principals Association argued they can. It found the 2010 tests had several “perverse effects” including pressure on school leaders to improve results at all costs, students becoming stressed — particularly those in Year 3 — and teachers requesting transfers to year levels not covered by NAPLAN.
Public education advocacy group Save Our Schools says the tests are called NAPALM by many teachers because they kill creativity in the classroom.
Berliner doesn’t want Australia to end up in the same boat as the US, where test results lead to schools being designated failures.
“I hope you fight the battles for the public schools more successfully than we have in the USA.
“We’ve had a lost decade because of stupid politicians. Sadly all this was predictable. High stakes testing has fostered gaming and cheating to get the scores up at the expense of genuine learning. The numbers from the test take on too much value.”
The academic doesn’t mince his words when it comes to No Child Left Behind, which he explains requires all schools to have all students proficient in literacy and numeracy by 2014.
“... it was then in 2002, and is now in 2012, a decade later a stupid law. How you get all students to a level well above average is of course impossible, except in the dreamy land of hallucinating politicians.”
There is plenty of evidence to suggest a narrowed curriculum — what Berliner calls “the most rational response” to the pressures. Since the No Child Left Behind Law the average time spent on English teaching per week has increased by 47 per cent, while maths has seen a 37 per cent increase.
On the flipside, time devoted to science (which is not tested) is down by 33 per cent, social studies and history is down 32 per cent, PE down 35 per cent and recess time is down 28 per cent.
He recalls finding a school outside Boston where lunch is seven minutes long. “It’s crazy out there, but if your job depended on it how would you react?”
So, is Australia on track to repeat the same mistakes? Professor Brian Caldwell, former Dean of Education at the University of Melbourne and now an education consultant, says there’s still time to change course.
As part of a submission to the Senate inquiry into the administration and reporting of NAPLAN testing back in 2010, Caldwell presented a ‘preferred scenario’ of NAPLAN and MySchool. This alternative vision takes up the story eight years from now.
“It is 2020. There is now a higher level of transparency and more testing in Australia’s schools than in the past,” it says.
“However, approaches associated with NAPLAN and the MySchool website at the start of the decade ... have been abandoned. A united profession and the public at large soon realised that expectations had not been realised and the scheme was become increasingly and seriously dysfunctional.”
Caldwell believes there’s still time to avoid the pitfalls experienced in the US and UK. “I think it is feasible and I’m more optimistic the scenario can be achieved.
“I think the [teaching] profession, to its credit, wanted to give NAPLAN a fair go. The AEU took a very strong stand against NAPLAN tests but did not proceed with a possible course of action ... after having assurance English style league tables would be produced.”
Caldwell says there’s good news and bad news to tell about NAPLAN. The good news being that the most serious potential misuses of data have been avoided.
“The key indicator here is there’s been nothing here in Australia to match what I see when I go to England after national tests. [There] all the major newspapers publish supplements that list every school in order from number 1 down to 13,000 or something in that area.”
However, the potential shortcomings have persisted. “Like the fact we are subjecting children as young as Year 3 to national high stakes tests when very few countries in the world do it and the limited number that do are moving away from it.”
Like Berliner, Caldwell was baffled when Julia Gillard turned to the then chancellor of New York’s Department of Education, Joel Klein, for advice on testing.
“He was brought to Australia ... spruiking the benefits of the courses of action and high stakes testing there,” Caldwell recalls.
“I could not understand that if one was going to be looking for impressive practices ... one certainly wouldn’t have gone for New York, you would go to Scandinavian, East Asian countries and the like.”
Caldwell says the latest data in Australia shows student achievement has flatlined, as it has in England and the US. It leads him to make a bold prediction for Australia.
“... I think the patience of states and territories, teacher unions and the public at large will be wearing pretty thin in a year or two when this flatlining continues and there’s a realisation that we’ve got to get a better [curriculum] balance.”
ATM May, 2012: Vol 8 Issue 4
Click here to read part two of this month's Cover Story: Online surveys underway to determine effects of NAPLAN testing.