Intensive Test Practice Takes Over the Classroom

Following the NAPLAN tests last week, there were several reports about schools spending inordinate amounts of time on test practice to improve school results to the detriment of other areas of the curriculum.

Some schools have been “preparing” for the tests for longer than six months. Numerous teachers told The Courier-Mail they have spent more than half of their class time this year on exam preparation and practice questions [12 May]. The Canberra Times reported that some ACT schools had spent up to 90 minutes a day over two weeks practicing for NAPLAN [11 May]. Several parents at a south Canberra school said that students had to sit for two practice tests a day in the lead-up to the NAPLAN tests.

Several newspapers reported students and parents saying that a lot of time was spent in class practicing for the tests. For example, one Victorian eight year old said: “We did lots and lots of practice tests…Once you do lots they start to get boring” [ Herald-Sun, 12 May]. Many parents say their children received excessive coaching to boost their performances in the tests [ ABC News, 13 May].

In a report analysing last year’s national test results, the Queensland Studies Authority warned teachers about over-practising for the writing exam. The Courier-Mail reported that test markers felt that Queensland students had “over-practised” for the 2009 NAPLAN writing task.

The Queensland Teachers Union president Steve Ryan said schools are spending too much time grooming students in an attempt to make them perform better in the NAPLAN tests.

We’ve got the ridiculous situation of schools just setting aside a whole range of good curriculum offerings just to concentrate on NAPLAN so the school would be seen to be in some way better than the school next to it. [ ABC News, 11 May]

The principal of one Perth private school said that it was a “sad week for education”:

The NAPLAN tests are now almost completely useless as a diagnostic tool for individual student performance as different schools choose to prepare so differently, many coaching to the test to avoid potential public humiliation…Stories already abound of a narrowed curriculum filled with NAPLAN lessons from day one, term one from Year 2 onward. [ West Australian, 12 May]

A survey released by the Australian Secondary Principals Association in April shows that 70% of schools had increased the time devoted to test preparation in their school this year in response to My School. This comes at the expense of other areas of the curriculum.

The President of the Association, Sheree Vertigan, said that most students were spending “a lot of time” in class preparing for the NAPLAN tests and that it was “defeating the whole purpose of the tests in the first place” [ The Australian, 10 May]. She said encouraging students to study for NAPLAN tests was “manipulating” the data and was the main catalyst for “narrowing the curriculum”.

The executive director of the private schools Australian Parents Council, Ian Dalton, said there was an “element of concern” with teachers encouraging students to study for the tests. “What teachers are doing is masking the areas of need. . . which is not in the best interest of students” [ The Australian, 10 May].

Intensive practicing of tests has a strong distorting effect on the school curriculum.

It takes away considerable time from other key curriculum areas. It means that science, history, social studies, languages, arts and music, physical education and health receive get less attention because results in these areas do not contribute to school results published on My School.

For example, a study done by the University of Manchester in 2007 found that teaching for tests in maths and English deprives primary school children of a wide range of subjects [ BBC News, 6 November 2007]. Data from 802 of England’s primary schools over the previous 10 years showed that over half of classroom time was spent on maths and English at the expense of science, art and humanities.

In the United States, a study found that most elementary schools added at least 75 minutes of instruction time in reading and mathematics each week, and often twice that amount, in the five years after the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act which required greater accountability for school results in English and maths [ Education Week, 27 February 2008].

Last year, the Texas Senate voted unanimously to stop the widespread practice of schools pulling students out of art, music, and other enrichment classes to cram for state-wide literacy and numeracy tests which are used to assess school performance [ Dallas Morning News, 6 April 2009]. Test preparation had increased so much that some students were missing half the class time scheduled for the arts.

There is even evidence from overseas that recess and lunch breaks get cut to enable more practicing of tests. Cutting back recess was an immediate response of many schools to the greater accountability for school test results under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The US Education Commission of the States found there was a marked reduction in recess since the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in 2001. In the era of high stakes testing, some schools now believe that recess is not an essential part of the school day [ The Examiner, 23 September 2009]. At least 40 percent of schools in the United States have cut recess or are considering dropping [ St. Petersburg Times, 29 March 2005].

As one major city school superintendent once famously said in the early years of high stakes testing: “We are intent on improving academic performance. You don’t do that by having kids hanging from monkey bars” [ Phi Delta Kappan, May 2000].

The other narrowing effect on the curriculum is that intensive test practice tends to emphasize memorization and recall over understanding and inquiry. Students also get drilled in test-taking skills rather than deeper learning skills. Studies show that teachers often prepare students for standardised tests by spending much time on practicing on old test questions and drills based on memorization and recitation. Extended writing, research and investigation, and analytical skills get de-emphasized.

The outcome of all this is a less well-rounded and balanced education.

It is an irony that the Deputy Chief of Staff to Julia Gillard, Tom Bentley, and a former education advisor to the Blair Government, has acknowledged the debilitating effect of intensive test practice on the curriculum and the broader learning of students. Writing on the English experience with league tables in an article titled ‘Time to stop teaching the test’ he said:

The premium placed on test results has encouraged schools and teachers to teach “to the test”. This reinforces a system in which students are offered few real incentives to transfer skills across disciplines and contexts or solve real problems within disciplines – to develop their understanding in ways which they could apply in the world beyond the exam hall. [ The Observer, 10 February 2002]

He obviously needs to give this advice to his current minister.

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