Cheating on NAPLAN Tests Will Only Increase

Already, we have seen several allegations of schools cheating in the first national literacy and numeracy tests held since the My School website became operational. 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.

Allegations of schools cheating on the NAPLAN tests held last week were made in several states. They involve the leaking of tests beforehand to alert teachers about questions and teachers helping students with answers and changing answers.

The Western Australian State School Teachers Union said it has evidence that schools around Australia have opened the NAPLAN tests early and prepared their classes accordingly [ ABC News, 13 May]. It has called for an inquiry to claims that some schools are cheating on national literacy and numeracy tests to boost their ranking [ ABC News, 12 May].

The head of a prestigious Perth boys’ school warned that the possibility of cheating on national literacy and numeracy tests makes them too easily corruptible to be an effective tool to measure school performance. The Christ Church Grammar School headmaster said rumours had circulated that teachers who received test papers several days before students sat the tests were using their knowledge of the contents to prepare their classes. [ The West Australian, 12 May).

In the week of the tests other rumours exist of teachers being in possession of the test papers prior to the day of their implementation and using this knowledge as last-minute test preparation with classes….It’s a totally corruptible tool the Government has now put in place.

The WA Education Department said it was investigating two allegations of cheating [ ABC News, 15 May]. It subsequently found no evidence of cheating [ ABC News, 20 May].

NAPLAN test materials were allegedly leaked in Queensland in the lead-up to the tests. Evidence of alleged cheating was cited in a letter sent to education authorities one week before the tests started which warned that some of the writing test items had been leaked for students to practice before the tests [ The Courier-Mail, 12 May]. The Courier-Mail also reported that a teacher had contacted the newspaper alleging items from the writing test had been leaked to schools.

The Queensland Department of Education said it was aware of three possible breaches of the testing process [ ABC News, 13 May]. It was also reported that a question from the spelling, punctuation and grammar test was leaked in NSW [ The Australian, 12 May].

The New South Wales Department of Education allowed some schools to schedule their tests over two weeks which created the potential for students and teachers in schools which did the tests in the first week to pass on questions to those in schools doing the test in the second week [ The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May].

A teacher at a South Australian state school, St. Leonard’s Primary School, was suspended after admitting to altering students’ answers on the tests. One report said the teacher was caught making the changes on the year 7 tests by another member of staff [ ABC News, 13 May]. Another reported students saying that the teacher stood over them instructing them to erase the answers because “they weren’t neat enough” and then indicated which answers to remark [ The Advertiser, 14 May].

Two other allegations of cheating in Adelaide schools have also been made [ ABC News, 17 May; The Australian, 18 May; Adelaide Now, 18 May]. A teacher at Elizabeth Vale Primary School is accused of providing what state Education Minister Jay Weatherill described as “inappropriate assistance” to Year 3 and 4 pupils during NAPLAN tests. The teacher has been stood down but denies any misconduct.

In the other case, a Year 5 class at the prestigious Catholic school, Rostrevor College, was allegedly given advance notice of the writing test topic. The Catholic Education Office has confirmed that a teacher has been stood down, pending an investigation.

A father of a student at Brisbane State High School told the ABC that grade nine students were not supervised during a lunch break in the middle of the tests and were able to compare answers and change them after the break [ ABC News, 14 May].

The kids that didn’t know the answers to the difficult questions went and saw all the smart kids, got the answers, then they were allowed back into the hall and they were able to do part two….A lot of the kids were updating the first part of the exam with the answers that they got from the smart kids at lunchtime.

It was also alleged that a similar incident occurred at All Hallows School, a private school. An investigation into the allegations has been launched.

A teacher at the Melbourne school, Debney Park Secondary College, is being investigated for helping a student with a question during the Year 9 numeracy test [ Herald-Sun, 19 May]. It was reported that the teacher suggested the student change the answer and other students reported it to senior staff at the school.

An innovative method of cheating was also revealed in southern NSW and the Gold Coast.

The Canberra Times [19 May] reported that 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.

A similar case was also reported at Merrimac High School on the Gold Coast [ Courier-Mail, 19 May]. It was claimed that posters providing basic mathematics information were on display in classrooms during the numeracy tests.

These examples herald what is likely to become more common in the future.

WA Primary Principals’ Association president Stephen Breen said the higher the stakes, the greater the risk that cheating could occur [ The West Australian, 12 May]. Queensland Teachers Union president, Steve Ryan, warned that cheating “is inevitable” because of the way governments are promoting NAPLAN [ The Courier-Mail, 12 May]. Flinders University literacy expert Dr Barbara Nielsen said it was “just a matter of time” before this type of cheating occurred because of the high stakes now involved [ Adelaide Now, 18 May].

In the United States, there are cheating scandals every year as schools resort to helping students with answers in tests or changing their answers after the tests under the pressure to improve school results. For example, last year a survey of public school teachers in Chicago by the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that one-third of all teachers had been pressured in the last year by principals and school boards to change student grades. Twenty per cent said that they had actually raised grades under this pressure. Earlier this year, nearly 400 schools in the state of Georgia were under investigation for changing student answers on test sheets or were facing increased monitoring during tests.

Schools and teachers are facing immense pressure to improve school results and their ranking on school league tables published in the media. School reputations are at stake. Careers 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 not surprising that some succumb to this pressure by cheating. The principal of Rostrevor College, where one teacher has been accused of cheating, said that primary and junior secondary school teachers in his school were feeling “quite significant pressure” because of the NAPLAN tests [ The Australian, 18 May]. The SA state President of the Australian Education Union said that the teacher at St. Leonard’s Primary who admitted cheating felt under pressure because the results were used to assess the performance of schools [ The Australian, 15 May].

The security surrounding the NAPLAN tests is totally inadequate. It is far too easy for schools to cheat. Test booklets are delivered to schools a week or 10 days beforehand and there is little to stop an unethical principal or test co-ordinator from opening them and alerting teachers about questions to practice in their class.

Tests are mostly supervised alone by teachers in the classroom and there is no monitoring to stop teachers helping their students with answers. There are also ample opportunities available after the tests are taken to change answers or fill in unanswered questions by students.

The Federal Education Minister should commission a review of the security of NAPLAN. The stakes are now so high that the only real solution to stop cheating increasing is independent supervision of NAPLAN as is done with Year 12 exams in most states.

Trevor Cobbold

This post was updated on 21 May 2010.

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