Several Schools Found to be Cheating in NAPLAN Tests

Several teachers were found to have helped students with answers during last year’s national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests. Several schools were also found to have encouraged some parents to withdraw their children from the tests. Test booklets went missing in some schools.

We are likely to see more and more of this in coming years. Cheating and rorting of school results is likely to become a feature of Australia’s education system just as it has in England and the United States with the publication of school league tables.

Last year, there were three incidents in Queensland of teachers providing assistance to students during the tests. One NSW principal was found to have helped students complete a test. In WA, a teacher allowed students to change their answers after they had finished the assessments and another allowed two students to re-do questions the next day. In the ACT, a test supervisor was found to have encouraged a student to change an answer.

In South Australia, a class of Year 9 students were allowed extra time to complete a test. Some students in one NSW class were given extra time in one test to complete tasks they had not completed in another test.

These incidents are revealed in a report released last week by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) on cheating and other breaches during last year’s NAPLAN tests. A summary chart and table of incidents is attached below.

Overall, there were nine substantiated incidents of school cheating – three in NSW, three in Queensland, two in Western Australia and one in the ACT. The teachers involved face disciplinary action, which could include a reprimand, fine or dismissal. Another 13 reports of cheating by teachers were found to be unsubstantiated.

There were also several instances of schools encouraging students not to participate in tests. Five Victorian schools were found to have exerted influence on parents to withdraw their children from the tests.

Twelve significant security breaches were substantiated. In one NSW school, all the completed Year 3 and Year 5 language conventions/writing tests disappeared from secure storage prior to collection. Police are investigating the incident.

Several security breaches were also substantiated in NSW which involved test materials being left unattended before the tests. In Tasmania, some test booklets went missing from a school storeroom prior to the test.

Two NSW schools ran the literacy tests over two days for Year 7 and Year 9 students which would have given students the opportunity to discuss and compare answers. One WA school split the numeracy test for a class into two sessions – one before recess and one after – which would have also given students an opportunity to discuss answers. Another WA school failed to collect completed test books at the end of each test session.

ACARA also reported 33 substantiated breaches of general administration protocols for the NAPLAN tests but which did not amount to cheating or breaches of test security.

In 2010, there were 12 substantiated cases of cheating, 10 test security breaches and 12 administrative breaches of test protocols.

Cheating is very difficult to stamp out when school results are published. It continues to flourish after 20 or more years of publication of school results and league tables in the United States and England.

Last year an investigation into the largest ever cheating scandal in US schools revealed rampant, systematic cheating on test scores in Atlanta’s public schools. It found that 178 teachers and principals in 40 of Atlanta’s 100 public schools cheated on state standardized tests in 2009. It uncovered instances of cheating dating back to 2001. The report said that extreme pressure to boost test scores drove teachers and principals to cheat.

An investigation is ongoing into high erasure rates on mathematics and reading tests in more than 100 schools in Washington DC.

In England last year, even exam boards were caught cheating by providing test questions to teachers months before the exams were due. In 2009, students from 70 schools had their Sats test results annulled or changed because of cheating by teachers or bungled handling of the exams.

Reported cheating incidents are notoriously under-estimates of the real situation. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg, I think,” says US testing expert Professor Tom Haladyna, “The other 80 percent is being hidden” [Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 21 June 2009].

The cheating incidents reported by ACARA indicate the pressure schools and teachers are under because of the publication of school results on My School and league tables of results in newspapers. The pressure is so intense that some have felt compelled to resort to helping students.

WA Primary Principals Association President, Stephen Breen, said teachers were under “massive” pressure to obtain good test results. “Everything now revolves around the NAPLAN tests,” he said. “It’s like Year 12 for Year 3s” [The West Australian, 12 January 2012].

Young children are also feeling the pressure. ‘NAPLAN belly’ became a common ailment in schools around Australia during last year’s tests.

NAPLAN now dominates school life in the first part of the year for grades 3, 5, 7 & 9. Endless test practice in literacy and numeracy became entrenched in schools last year. Timetables were reviewed to give more time to NAPLAN to the detriment of other curriculum areas. According to Mr. Breen, “other subjects such as the creative arts and languages other than English go by the wayside to prepare for it” [WA Today, 12 January 2012].

This is what can be expected again in first term of this year in schools all around Australia. Some private schools have even decided to start preparing first and second graders for the tests. They say that they cannot expect their students to learn new skills and concepts in Term 1 of grade 3 and need to prepare children for the tests from the beginning of grade 1.

Australia has had national literacy and numeracy tests for well over a decade. None of this was happening prior to My School and the publication of league tables. There was no cheating by teachers, no pressuring of parents to withdraw children from the tests because they might reduce a school’s results, no children being kept home because they are too stressed out by the tests, no teaching to the test and no narrowing of the curriculum. All this is the Prime Minister’s own creation. What a legacy to Australian education!

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