An Innovative Way to Cheat on School Results

The pressure on schools to improve school league table rankings sometimes produces innovative ways to cheat and rort school results. A report in the Canberra Times (19 May) has exposed a simple way of cheating by schools that could well be the tip of the iceberg.

According to the report, students at a NSW school in the Canberra region were told by teachers to look at grammar and spelling charts pinned to the walls of the classroom during last week’s NAPLAN tests. A parent at the school claimed that several large laminated grammar charts with explanations and spelling lists were pinned to the walls and written on boards.

The parent complained to the school principal and the material was taken down while the tests were in progress. Similar materials for mathematics were also removed before the numeracy tests taken. The NSW Department of Education is investigating the case.

A former teacher at the school told the Canberra Times that similar posters had been in place during the national literacy and numeracy tests in previous years:

I can categorically say that since NAPLAN’s inception in 2008, [the school] has given students an unfair advantage over other schools by leaving classroom learning charts on the wall – from spelling to grammar to maths.

In all the research done by Save Our Schools on cheating and rorting of school results to improve league tables rankings in Australia and overseas, this case is almost unique in its simplicity and effectiveness. It is such a simple method of cheating that it may well be widely used without outsiders noticing because no one else is present in the classroom while the tests are in progress.

The pressure on schools and teachers to improve school results and their ranking on school league tables published in the media is immense. School reputations are at stake. The careers of teachers and principals are on the line. The Federal Education Minister has threatened principals and senior staff with the sack if schools fail to lift their results. She wants parents to confront teachers on poor test results.

It is little wonder that in the face of such pressure, some teachers feel compelled to give their students and their school a boost up. This new revelation adds to many other incidents of cheating and rorting of school results that have been reported around Australia in the last week.

We are likely to see more and more cheating in future because of the “high stakes” involved in publishing school NAPLAN results on My School and the publication of school league tables in the media. There are ample opportunities for cheating because security for the tests is inadequate and because teachers with a stake in the results mostly supervise the tests alone.

The head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Professor Barry McGaw, says those making damaging accusations ought to present some proof or keep quiet. Well, the evidence is startling.

Professor McGaw and Julia Gillard would have been well advised to take heed of the extensive evidence of cheating and rorting of school results overseas in planning the roll out of NAPLAN and My School. Save Our Schools consistently warned about the dangers of cheating and rorting ever since the plan to publish school results was first announced.

Professor McGaw and the Minister failed to heed this advice and the evidence of cheating and rorting in Australia is already significant. It will only increase without action to increase the security of NAPLAN.

This is another implementation failure in education by the Rudd Government.

First, there was the implementation failure of the Building the Education Revolution program where government schools had little to no choice about the building they had constructed and there appears to be substantial waste and rorting of the funding. Now, there is the implementation failure to provide adequate security for NAPLAN.

The stakes are now so high around NAPLAN and My School that the only real solution to stop cheating increasing is independent supervision of NAPLAN in all stages of the process. This means independent control over the test booklets before the tests, independent supervision of the tests and independent control over the test booklets after the tests are completed.

The Federal Education Minister should commission an independent review to improve the security of NAPLAN.

Trevor Cobbold

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