A Principal Speaks Out on NAPLAN

Wednesday October 17, 2012

This is an interview with Kevin Pope, Principal of Meadow Heights PS in Melbourne. The interview was conducted by Lorraine Wilson and Jacinta Cashen for the Say No To NAPLAN group. It is one of several papers recently published by Say No To NAPLAN. The full set of papers is available on the Literacy Educators’ Coalition website.

Kevin, tell us about your school.
Our school is welcoming, outward looking, inclusive and a school of excellence. We have over 600 students. 80% of our children live in poverty, 75% are from non-English speaking backgrounds and 75% are of the Islamic faith. We have 80 refugee families. These aspects of our school population give us rich diversity.

Tell us about your school program.
Our school values diversity, curiosity and imagination. To this end, we offer mother tongue maintenance in Prep and Year 1 by employing multi-cultural aides. The mother tongue languages are Turkish, Arabic, Vietnamese and Hmong. Our LOTE (Language other than English) is Turkish and begins in Year 2.

Over 450 children are absent on the day of celebration of the Muslim Eid festival, so we hold a curriculum day for staff on that day. The families are very positive about this arrangement.

We have a community hub at the school where the parents come to learn English, where they can mix with people from their own cultures, and where we run a play group for pre-school children.

Our school is a gold mine that requires specialised techniques and support. We need more human resources to help us refine our treasures. All our students deserve to shine!

How important is assessment when planning for student learning?
Classroom assessment is for finding out what the children know, evaluating teaching, and planning future teaching. We have 300 children on the ESL Companion Program, 40 PSD students (Programs for Students with Disabilities) and other students for whom we design individual learning plans.

Assessment is ongoing as teachers observe the children at work, listen to them read, evaluate and respond to the work they produce, read their learning journals, develop their digital portfolios, and so on. We have three parent‐teacher interviews a year and the children are included. Twenty-five interpreters attend, so the interviews are very effective for reporting student progress. Meaningful conversations occur and I judge a school by the quality of its conversations.

Does NAPLAN contribute positively to education?
No. It dumbs down learning and narrows the curriculum. It only focuses on literacy and numeracy. What about thinking, curiosity, music? It’s narrow ‘Anglo’ focus also means it’s not inclusive.

NAPLAN is not diagnostic, but in any case, when the data reaches schools many months later, it has passed its ‘use by’ date.

In my 20 years as a principal in disadvantaged schools, I have never received one cent more based on the results of testing. We have been wasting time based on the myth that test results get deserving schools extra money.

Tell us about NAPLAN and the Meadow Heights children.
We used to hand out the official Test Exemption forms at parent-teacher interviews and interpreters could help parents understand their rights. The Regional Office told us that we were being too political and we had to stop doing it. We now discuss NAPLAN orally during the interviews.

For conscientious reasons, a small number of parents withdraw their students and significant numbers of students with disabilities do not take the tests either. Some of the children from our 80 refugee families have had no schooling (or minimal schooling) before coming to Australia. However, once they have been here for two years, they are told they must do NAPLAN. (In comparison, Australian children have had nearly 3½ years of schooling before taking the tests.) Why can’t the school determine whether or not it’s appropriate for the refugee children to take the test?

Test items are often ambiguous. Several years ago one test item was about a brumby in the bush. At that time John Brumby was our local member and State premier. This caused our students great confusion.

If people ask questions about the MySchool website and the Meadow Heights results, we have to speak from a position of defence. We have to explain why “we are in pink”. Why can’t the Government honour the journey these children have made and acknowledge the work of the teachers? We work so hard to understand the children’s life experiences and to gather deep, rich information about them so that we are better able to assist their learning and to support their families – but these efforts are not recognised.

Might the Federal Government use money spent on NAPLAN in other ways?
Every child has the right to the best resources. Why waste money on useless testing?

NAPLAN is an obscene waste of public funds. We desperately need the money to provide children with experiences their families can’t afford. It costs us $1000 just to take one bus load of kids into the city. We try to subsidise these trips, but we just don’t have enough money. The NAPLAN budget could also be spent on getting more human resources into schools.

As a principal with a long career in education, how do you see your role?
Principals should be shaping change in education – not responding to it. Several decades ago principals were the educational leaders in schools. They were trusted to develop curriculum best suited to their community and their students. Now, younger principals are simply business managers, but research tells us that the most effective schools are led by educational leaders, not managers.

Sadly, many schools now feel vulnerable because they are misrepresented by weak NAPLAN data and misleading information on My School. They face close scrutiny from regional office staff and education department officers who use the invalid NAPLAN data for a school’s triennial review. There is no professional trust any more – just useless tests that are meaningless in the life of a school.

Educators must reclaim education.

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