Independent Private Schools Are the Biggest Rorters of NAPLAN Results

A new research study shows that many schools in Australia are manipulating their published school NAPLAN results by encouraging parents of low achieving students to withdraw them from the tests.  The study shows that Independent schools resort to this practice more than other schools. It shows that Independent schools withdraw low-achieving students from NAPLAN at twice the rate  of public schools. The study said the evidence indicated that some Independent schools were attempting to “game” the system of reporting school results on the MY School website.

The study found that Independent schools “game” their NAPLAN results much more than public schools. It found that the withdrawal rate among low performing Independent schools was twice that of public schools. Manipulating school results by withdrawing students was less prevalent in Catholic schools.

We find some evidence that those schools with potentially the most to lose from public accountability – private schools – respond more strongly than public or, especially, Catholic schools by adjusting their testing pool. [p. 15]

The overall finding of the study is that students who received low grades in NAPLAN tests were much more likely to be pulled out of the tests in subsequent years as a way of artificially boosting average score in order to protect their academic reputation. It found that a smaller proportion of students participated in testing from 2010 onwards in lowest-performing schools relative to similar schools and that this was driven by withdrawal of students. By comparison, the proportion of student absences from the test or exempted barely changed over the period.

The study also found a strong negative impact as the withdrawal rate increased. For example, if a school’s withdrawn percentage increased by one percentage point from 2008/09 to 2011/12 the percentage of its students scoring in the lowest band was estimated to have fallen by 0.144 percentage points on average.

The study concluded:

We find that schools in both the public and private sectors appear to respond strategically to the increase in accountability. The worse a school’s initial measured performance as advertised on My School, the more likely that a lower proportion of students from that school participated in subsequent testing years. Evidence further suggests that students who do not participate in testing are more likely to be low performers. [p. 1-2]

….we view our findings as most consistent with schools having encouraged more low performing students not to sit the NAPLAN tests in response to the accountability shock embodied in My School. [p. 14]

The authors saw this as evidence of schools “gaming” their results. “Our evidence is consistent with the idea a number of relatively poorly performing public and Independent private schools are gaming the system, to strategically adjust their NAPLAN testing pool,” said Professor Michael Coelli a co-author of the study from the faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Melbourne and the University of NSW who analysed non-participation rates of 6981 schools between 2008 and 2015 and found students who were withdrawn from NAPLAN were the  lowest performing among their cohort. The study is published in Economics of Education Review.

The researchers also considered whether other factors may have contributed to their result such as changes in student population in low performing schools. For example, if such schools experience a decline in higher performing students it will result in a higher proportion of students who are legitimately exempted from testing, such as learning-disabled students or students from non-English speaking backgrounds, and/or students whose parents elect to withdraw them from testing for other reasons. However, their analysis found that it is unlikely that student mobility can explain their findings.

The study acknowledged that parents rather than the school drove the withdrawal of students from the tests because of child anxiety about the tests.

The study follows extensive evidence of this practice in overseas countries and many newspaper reports of the practice in Australa following the introduction of My School. As the researchers acknowledge withdrawing students from NAPLAN tests is one of many ways that published school results can be manipulated to artificially boost school results. Others include outright cheating, classifying low achieving students as special education students who can be exempted from tests, encouraging low achieving students to stay at home on test days and suspending students on test days. All these practices have been used in Australian schools.

Such manipulation of school results corrupts the NAPLAN testing and reporting regime. It makes published NAPLAN results unreliable and misleading. It misleads parents about the quality of schools and misleads policy makers and educators about the reasons for successful school results.

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