Students around Australia have endured a testing barrage during first term. Hundreds of thousands of students were subjected to trial tests every week as schools prepare for a new round of NAPLAN tests next month. For many schools, NAPLAN is now the equivalent of Year 12 exams.
Parents were encouraged to do practice tests at home with their children and even to get their children privately tutored for the tests. Some private schools even did trial tests in Year 1 to prepare students for when they have to do the Year 3 tests. All this promises to continue into next term before the tests take place in mid-May.
NSW Public Schools Principals’ Forum official Brian Chudleigh says the system is “out of control” and skewing education in the wrong direction. He told the Daily Telegraph recently that the testing regime was contributing to a “massive dysfunction” in the state’s education system:
Many schools are having two or three lessons every week practising Naplan-style tests and that takes valuable teaching time away from other subjects. A lot of the best stuff we do with kids, particularly in primary school, is not measurable.
This is having the effect of restricting children’s access to and participation in the wider curriculum of creativity, culture, social and physical development.
According to former Queensland Director of Primary Education, Phil Cullen, schools are being encouraged to practise harder and for longer in the bid to get their My School results up. He recounts one anecdote in his newsletter:
The full-school staff meeting on Monday, 2 March was about practising. With great emotion, the principal of a private school instructed the teachers of Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 to practise for the NAPLAN tests as often as possible. When asked about commitments to music and the like, she replied that normal time-table allocations between subjects were not applicable until after the tests in May. Homework was to form part of the practice and any complaints from parents should be referred to her. The teachers could use the practice books as much as they liked. The message to the school staff [according to my gym friend who grinned slyly as she told me that she taught Year 1] was: “Go for it. Our reputation is at stake. Practise! Practise! Practise!”
He also reports the response of one teacher earlier in the year when asked if she was looking forward to going back to school. She replied, “Gosh. It’s just NAPLAN, NAPLAN, NAPLAN at our school for the first few months! What do you think?”
Education consultants working in schools say they are “staggered” by the amount of time devoted to practising for NAPLAN. A survey of private schools in the eastern states conducted by an academic at the University of Technology in Sydney in 2010 found that primary schools allocated up to two days a week in practising for NAPLAN and secondary schools allocated up to a day per week. Some schools spend a huge amount of time on NAPLAN, with some spending up to 150 hours in preparation.
Children are being “taught to the test” at the expense of other areas such as science, social studies, physical education, arts and music. Some schools leave doing science, social studies and drama, etc. until after May. As well, the development of the whole child – including socialisation, emotional welfare, physical fitness and cultural factors – are being relegated in importance.
As Phil Cullen says:
Practising is not teaching. It is big-time cheating when the original schooling concept of teaching a full curriculum to all, using pedagogically useful syllabuses and time allocations based on society’s view of their importance, is fiddled with for nefarious reasons….publishers profits and political bloody-mindedness. A balanced time table, related to child growth and development is a critical schooling issue.
Even the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which runs the tests, is now worried about the extent of practising that goes on in the classroom and the effect it is having on the curriculum. The Assessment and Reporting general manager of ACARA, Peter Adams, told the Adelaide Advertiser earlier this year that ACARA was concerned about teaching to the test and also that examples of privately produced NAPLAN preparation kits were linking to online copies of the tests. “There was potential for kids to be drilled through a series of tests which we’re not happy with,” he said.
NAPLAN tests are now big business. Numerous private firms are promoting test practice booklets through schools or directly to parents. It was reported in the Courier-Mail that one Queensland public school had included NAPLAN practice test booklets as part of their “Students Requirements List” for 2012 and was charging parents for them.
The Queensland Government hired outside consultants to test students in preparation for NAPLAN almost one year ahead of the exam. Mighty Minds Educational Systems consultants are being hired by schools throughout Queensland to help boost student NAPLAN results. State school students were being tested as early as third term last year in preparation for this year’s tests according to the Courier-Mail.
Many schools provide practice questions on their website. For example, St. Luke’s Anglican School in Queensland devotes part of its website to practice questions for parents to set their children at home. It also sends home weekly NAPLAN practice questions for homework. St. Edmund’s College in Canberra provides links to practice tests for parents and students on its website.
A teacher at Mount Annan Christian School in NSW reports on practice tests for her Year 3 class on her blog. Another Year 3 teacher’s blog at Landsdale PS in Western Australia advises parents on how to practice their child for the NAPLAN tests and encourages them to do it every day and during term holidays.
Principals, teachers and students are under incredible pressure this year to deliver better results on the NAPLAN tests. Principals in several states have told Save Our Schools that their regional meetings with education department officials are almost entirely devoted to NAPLAN and how to prepare teachers and students for the tests.
Teachers have reported that they feel under pressure at school to prepare students for tests. They say that their professionalism is being compromised because they have to “teach to the test”. Students are bored by the endless practising for tests and some parents have said that their children were physically sick during last year’s tests.
Schools are frantic to get better results reported on My School. The question that has to be asked is whether any improvements coming from all this test preparation are real. The likely outcome is the kind of “test score inflation” that occurs in the United States and England as schools try to manipulate their test results. Testing expert, David Koretz from Harvard University, calls test score inflation the “dirty secret of high-stakes testing”.
Test scores do not equal education. NAPLAN and practice tests for NAPLAN are leading to rote learning, passivity and conformity. This is not what we want from education. We want students to become active, engaged learners who think critically and creatively. This is what is needed both in the workforce and by society. It is being undermined by the undue focus on NAPLAN in schools.