Encouraging Students to Stay Away on Test Day is a Rort to Increase School Test Scores

Last week many schools bent the rules by encouraging parents of some low achieving students to stay home during the NAPLAN tests. The revelations show that some schools see that a key way to improving test scores is to restrict the participation of low achieving students in the tests because they reduce a school’s test scores. In this, they are following well-established practice used overseas where league tables of school results are published.

The manual of procedures issued for NAPLAN is explicit about exempting students from the tests. All students are encouraged to participate in the tests but students can be exempted on three grounds: students with a significant intellectual disability; students newly arrived from overseas and at the request of parents. In each case, the decision lies with parents and they have to apply for exemption.

These provisions have created loopholes for schools to exploit and they were used all around Australia during the NAPLAN test period. In some instances, they were pushed open even more. Schools are using these provisions to take pro-active action to encourage parents of low achieving students to apply for exemptions or to exercise their option not to have their children participate in the tests.

There were many reports last week of parents of low achieving students in Queensland and Victoria being told by schools to keep their children home from school over three days of NAPLAN testing. The Melbourne Herald-Sun said that dozens of parents and teachers had contacted the newspaper telling of schools that had put pressure on children to stay home and not “drag down” the school averages [ Herald-Sun, 12 May, 13 May].

One Melbourne teacher told The Age he was aware of parents of failing students being told during parent interview nights there was no educational benefit for their child to sit the NAPLAN test [ The Age, 13 May].

The Herald Sun was told four grade 3 students at a school in the Loddon Mallee region were told not to sit the NAPLAN test because it might bring down the school’s results. Their parents signed forms exempting them from the test and they spent the day with grade 4 and 6 students, who did not do tests.

The President of the Queensland Teachers Union, Steve Ryan, told ABC News [11 May] that he was aware of several cases of schools encouraging students to stay home on the test days.

It’s leading to all sorts of unnecessary practices in schools. I have heard of it happening in schools where they’ve deliberately taken a stance that they don’t want below-average students doing the tests and dropping their scores, which probably shows less of an understanding of what the NAPLAN tests are designed to do rather than anything else.

A parent at Mount Cotton state primary school in Queensland said she was told her son was exempt because of an intellectual disability and he would either be put in a grade 2 class while the tests were on or she could keep him at home [ ABC News 11 May, 13 May; The Australian, 12 May].

The father of a struggling year 7 student at Vermont Secondary College in Victoria said his son was told he did not have to sit the NAPLAN tests and that his wife was contacted by a school co-ordinator on the night before the tests started and told their son did not have to sit the test.

My son is a C and D-grade student – he doesn’t receive A’s. I couldn’t believe it … schools are obviously trying to get themselves to look better than they actually are and that’s wrong. You can’t fudge the figures – it’s fraudulent. [ The Age, 12 May]

The parents of a Year 9 student at Leongatha Secondary College were contacted by the school half an hour before the first test was due suggesting that their son not sit the tests [ Herald-Sun, 13 May].

These incidents demonstrate that many schools have not followed the spirit or the letter of the NAPLAN administrative guidelines. Schools have taken a pro-active stance to encourage some students not to sit the tests rather than to encourage all students to participate and to leave it to parents to decide whether to seek exemption for their child.

One school principal defended the school’s action in contacting parents to withdraw their children on the grounds that the student concerned “may find doing the test sitting for that length of time frustrating” [ ABC News, 13 May]. The President of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals said:

There’s not much point in a child with an intellectual disability sitting there doing a test where they could do five minutes of the test and they’re sitting there for an hour … nobody’s gaining out of that. [ ABC News, 13 May]

The acting principal at Brauer College in Warrnambool defended asking the parents of some students not to sit the tests because the students may find the tests daunting:

There were students who we thought would be distressed by doing the tests and they are for the most part students in the disability program or with reading ages that are hugely below expected….We then contacted their parents and if the parents wanted them excluded then that’s what we did.” [ ABC News, 13 May]

These are not grounds for exempting students. They are not provided for in the administrative guidelines for NAPLAN and amount to bending the rules. If such action is not stamped out by education officials more and more schools will resort to the loophole to improve their school results. More and more schools will pressure parents of low achieving students to withdraw their children from the tests as a way of improving school results.

The response of the Federal Education Minister, Julia Gillard, to these incidents verged on the complacent. She told The Age that school participation rates in the national literacy and numeracy tests would be published on the My School website: ‘’If there is an unusually low number of children participating in a school, that will prompt questions and it will be investigated,’’ she said [ The Age, 13 May].

Such investigations are likely to prove ineffectual. There will be variations in participation rates in NAPLAN from year-to-year, and it will be impossible to determine whether any reductions are due to schools initiating exemptions or whether they are due to parents deciding on their own to seek exemptions.

Changes in participations rates will also be affected by differences in the incidence of illness amongst children from year-to-year. Also, high rates of mobility between schools may also lead to changes in participation rates if a new influx of students has a higher rate of absenteeism.

Schools will be able to strategically exclude low achieving students without triggering a large reduction in participation rates which would attract an investigation by from education officials. A small increase in a school’s exemption rate may produce a large impact on school results if it is targeted at the lowest achieving students.

The only answer to this rort is for the Federal Education Minister to stop schools pressuring parents of lower achieving students to withdraw them from NAPLAN tests in the future. The decision to withdraw a child from the NAPLAN tests should be left to parents, free of pressure from schools.

Trevor Cobbold

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