The NAPLAN tests this month demonstrated emphatically that Australian schools have entered a new era. Rorting and cheating on NAPLAN are now set to be the rule for the future, under the pressure created by My School and school league tables.
Encouraging low achieving students to stay at home while the NAPLAN tests are on at school, cheating by changing student answers on tests, leaking questions before the tests, intensive practicing of tests and selective enrolment of high achieving students were all used by some schools to artificially inflate their results.
Julia Gillard dismissed the incidents as only a small number. However, they are just the beginning. We can expect schools to resort to rorting and rigging of their results on a grander scale under the pressure to improve or maintain their ranking on school performance tables.
School performance reporting and league tables create pressures and incentives for schools to fudge their results. When testing is simply used as a diagnostic tool, there is no reason for teachers or schools to trick or cheat. This only comes when “high stakes” are attached to the results, such as affecting school reputations and the careers of teachers and principals.
What we saw during the NAPLAN tests was the beginning of a system of fraud – a system in which school results are systematically rorted and rigged. It means that parents and the public will be misled about actual school results. It will not be possible to trust the results posted on My School or the rankings of school league tables as a guide to school quality and progress.
It is also seems that Gillard and other education ministers are prepared to live with fraud and the misleading results published on My School. They have dismissed concerns raised by many about the inadequate security arrangements in place for NAPLAN.
To see the future, we need look no further than the system of school reporting so admired by Julia Gillard – that of New York City and her mentor, Joel Klein. Here fraud and distortion are endemic. Diane Ravitch, Professor of Education at New York University and former US Assistant Secretary of Education, calls it a system of “institutionalized lying” which produces “rigged and fraudulent” results.
Ravitch says that in the US testing and reporting school results has corrupted testing so much that:
I fear that American education has now entered into a twilight zone, where nothing is what it appears to be, where numbers are meaningless, where public relations and spin take the place of honest reporting, where fraud is called progress.
We could also look at the experience in Texas over the past 20 years. The Texas school accountability system was the forerunner of many school reporting systems in the US, including the No Child Left Behind Act. Ever since it was introduced, it has been plagued by rorting and cheating of school results which has continued to this day.
Just this week, the Houston Chronicle (25 May) reported that a Houston school district found evidence that teachers had changed some fifth-grade students’ answers on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam and helped students correct wrong answers. Other evidence shows that some teachers had access to the exam answer sheets and possibly the exam questions before test day. A principal, deputy principal and three teachers have resigned as a result of the investigations.
Rorting and cheating on school results are not going to go away. They are here to stay as a result of My School and school league tables published by the media. This is the Rudd Government’s legacy.
Competition for higher rankings forces schools to “play the system” to show improvement even where there is none. Playing the system is the quick route to better results.
It is an example of a well known phenomenon in social science research called Campbell’s law. Campbell’s law states:
The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.
When this law was first formulated, its author specifically applied it to education testing:
Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.
The outcome of such practices is “test score inflation”, the phenomenon of ever-improving test results. Testing expert, Daniel Koretz, Professor of Education at Harvard University, says that test score inflation is the “dirty secret of high stakes testing”.
Scores on the tests used for accountability have become inflated, badly overstating real gains in student performance. Some of the reported gains are entirely illusory, and others are real but grossly exaggerated. The seriousness of this problem is hard to overstate. When scores are inflated, many of the most important conclusions people base on them will be wrong, and students – and sometimes teachers – will suffer as a result. [ Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, p.233].
Test score inflation gives the illusion of progress, the illusion of higher student achievement.
This is what we can now expect with My School – ever improving test scores as schools learn to play the system by rorting and cheating and more and more practising for NAPLAN tests in class. The whole national assessment and reporting system will be corrupted.
It means that My School will mislead rather than inform and it will not be possible to tell which results are legitimate and which are bogus. Far from improving transparency and school results, My School will lead to greater opaqueness and manipulation of school results.