Study Reveals the Damage to Education by NAPLAN and My School

Together with many teachers, academics and others around Australia, we can only feel vindicated by a new study by researchers at the University of Melbourne that shows the disastrous consequences of reporting school results on national literacy and numeracy tests. Incredibly, 75% of teachers say that they now teach to the test because of the focus on the NAPLAN tests and 70% say that less time is now spent on other subjects in schools.

These are damning statistics. They show that the testing and reporting regime introduced by the Rudd/Gillard Governments is doing immense damage to Australian education. For much of the year students are not receiving a rounded education. Equally damning is the finding that the focus on NAPLAN in schools is taking a toll on the well-being of very young children.

Unfortunately, the new study fails to adequately distinguish cause and effect. The education and other effects gleaned from the survey are presented as stemming solely from the NAPLAN tests rather than the publication of school test results on the My School website and school league tables in newspapers. The My School website is hardly mentioned in the study and was not mentioned at all in the questionnaire for the survey.

For better or worse, standardised tests have been used in Australia since the late 1980s as “low stakes” tests. Several states adopted standardised tests in the late 1980s and early 1990s and a form of national testing was introduced in 1999. However, teaching to the test, narrowing of the curriculum and the other negative effects have only appeared since the introduction of My School and school league tables. None of this was happening before My School. My School has ensured that NAPLAN is a “high stakes” test and it this which is the cause of the damage to education so clearly evident from the new study.

The study is the first national assessment of the effects of the new testing and reporting regime. It surveyed about 8,300 teachers around Australia. Its findings show that many consequences of high-stakes testing in other countries are now happening in Australia as many, including SOS, predicted when My School began.

The findings relate to three main issues: teaching and curriculum, the health of students and the impact on schools.

The study shows that schools spend a considerable amount of time practising and preparing for the NAPLAN tests. Over 60% of teachers said that they had their students doing practice tests at least three times in the final two weeks before the tests. About one-third said they practised six or more times in the final two weeks – this is a practice test at least every second day. Only 13% of teachers reported that they did not practice tests with their students in those weeks.

Just under 40% of teachers said that they had students practising once a week for five months prior to the tests and a further 7% said they were practising daily for the five months.

Primary school teachers reported more practice than secondary school teachers. About 75% or primary teachers said that they had three or more practice sessions in the two weeks before the tests and just over 40% said they had six or more practice sessions. One quarter said they had more than seven practice sessions in the two weeks, which is close to one every day.

About 55% of primary teachers said they practised tests at least once a week for five months before the tests, including 10% who practised daily for the whole five months. About 35% of secondary teachers said they practised tests at least once a week for the five months.

Clearly, some schools are spending a lot of time practising for NAPLAN. The study shows that this is having an impact on the time spent on other curriculum areas. Nearly 70% of those responding to the survey said that that the focus of NAPLAN on literacy and numeracy has led to a timetable reduction for other subjects in their schools. About 75% said that they spend more time in class on areas they know will be tested and that NAPLAN has reduced the importance of other curriculum areas.

The time spent on practising for NAPLAN is also affecting teaching in the classroom. Nearly 75% of the survey participants said that they taught to the test and 55% said that the focus on NAPLAN had narrowed the range of teaching strategies they use.

The evidence from the survey shows a large proportion of educators are reporting that at least some students are suffering health and well-being issues as a result of the focus on NAPLAN. Difficulties include physical responses such as crying, sleeplessness, and feeling sick, as well as psychological responses such as an inability to cope emotionally, feelings of inadequacy, and concerns about the ways in which others might view them.

The most common response was increased stress. This was reported by about 90% of the survey respondents. Eighty-one per cent of the participants reported having at least one student say they felt sick before the NAPLAN and eleven percent of respondents stated that more than ten students had complained of feeling unwell. A number of participants spoke of students saying that they felt sick in order to stay home and avoid having to take the tests.

More than half of the participants said that between one and ten students said that they suffered sleeplessness as a result of the tests, with a further six per cent reporting that more than ten students had complained of sleeplessness.

Respondents also reported significant numbers of parents raising concerns about the impact of the tests on their children’s well-being. Nearly 70% of teachers said that they had heard from individual parents about stressed children. This was more common for primary-aged children.

Over 40% of teachers reported having had concerns raised by parents regarding their child’s ability to sleep as a consequence of the tests. Thirty-six per cent reported parents had raised problems of students feeling sick before the test, with almost one quarter reporting that multiple families had identified this issue.

The other significant issue raised in the survey concerns the impact of the results achieved by schools. Teachers felt overwhelmingly that poor NAPLAN results could affect the school in various ways. Ninety-five per cent felt that the publication of ‘weaker than expected’ results would negatively affect parental perception of the school. Ninety-five per cent also felt that poor results would negatively affect media reports about the school, and 96% felt that weak results would damage the school’s reputation in the community. Over 90% said that it would mean that a school would have trouble attracting and retaining students.

The study also provides information on the withdrawal of students from NAPLAN. Disability students and students with a language background other than English who arrived from overseas and have been attending school for less than a year before the test are exempt from NAPLAN. Other students can be withdrawn from NAPLAN at the request of parents.

Approximately 50% of the participants surveyed had recommended that students be removed from NAPLAN for a number of reasons. Participants were able to nominate multiple reasons for this. Nearly 90% of those who recommended that students be removed did so because the students were eligible for exemption. However, 50% had recommended that certain students not sit NAPLAN because it could have a damaging effect on their confidence and about one-third did so because the students would not be able to concentrate for the length of the test.

Participants in the survey were also asked about parent requests to withdraw their child from NAPLAN. The most common reasons given by parents were the negative effect it would have on their child’s confidence and that they were opposed to NAPLAN.

The Federal Government Education Minister, Peter Garrett, adopted a “shoot the messenger” response. He criticised the study as unrepresentative and of “extremely limited value”, preferring to rely on his own anecdotal feedback as somehow being more accurate. The Minister has his head in the sand on the harm being done by his Government’s national testing and reporting regime.

While NSW and Victoria are under-represented, the survey of over 8,300 teachers is the first of its kind since My School was introduced and is far more comprehensive than what has been done to date. Its findings reflect those of extensive surveys and studies in the UK and the USA over twenty years which show that publishing school test results harms education by encouraging excessive test preparation, narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, and resort to rote learning in classrooms. This is what Garrett doesn’t like and why he opened fire on the study.

The Federal Opposition Shadow Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, said that a Coalition Government would stop reporting raw school results on My School and, instead, publish the improvement made by schools. He said this would remove unnecessary stress on teachers and students.

It is difficult to understand how Pyne can believe this will make any difference. It would simply replace one form of reporting school results by another and one form of league table by another. All the same incentives to teach to the test and narrow the curriculum would remain. NAPLAN would remain a “high stakes” test because school improvement results and league tables of improvement scores would still be published.

The fact is that NAPLAN is a “high stakes” test and will remain so for as long as school results, in whatever form, are published. School reputations and enrolments, the careers of teachers and principals, and even the careers of education officials are all affected by My School. This creates strong incentives for schools to create a learning environment based on preparing for NAPLAN, to endlessly practice tests and to focus on the subjects tested for much of the school year.

The harm being done to education by NAPLAN can only be undone by stopping the publication of school results on My School. Obviously, this is not going to happen under the Gillard Government or under an Abbott Government. Those who understand the damage being done have a long campaign ahead, but the Melbourne University study has provided robust evidence to use to press their case.

Trevor Cobbold

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