Months of test-prepping and drilling students in classrooms around Australia culminates with the national literacy and numeracy tests (NAPLAN) this week. It is a week of enormous pressure on students and teachers. The results will determine school reputations and affect the careers of teachers and principals.
NAPLAN has now taken over the curriculum in the first part of the year. Teachers have been drilling their students for months on practice tests. Students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 have been “test-prepped to death”. Many schools even sent NAPLAN test booklets home for students to practice on during the school holidays.
Professional development has been dominated by NAPLAN. Education consultants have been inundated with requests to do workshops in schools to prepare teachers for this year’s tests.
Education departments have been thrusting test preparation materials on schools since the beginning of the year. Education publishing companies have got in the act too with on-line and other ‘test-prep’ materials. Such is the pressure that many teachers and schools will be tempted to rort or cheat.
NAPLAN is now a threat to good education. It diminishes good teaching and the curriculum just about everywhere. It been re-named “NAPALM” by many teachers because it kills everything in the classroom.
Drilling for tests and test-taking skills now take precedence over exploring, creating, thinking and analysing skills. As one Victorian eight year-old said last year: “We did lots and lots of practice tests…Once you do lots they start to get boring” [ Herald-Sun, 12 May 2010].
Practicing for the NAPLAN tests has shrunk the time spent on other key parts of the curriculum – science, history, social science, arts and music, language, health and PE. A survey conducted by the Australian Secondary Principals Association last year found that 65% of schools reported that they had increased the time spent in class on preparation for the NAPLAN tests and 70% said they had increased the time spent on practising tests.
The pressure has been on teachers from day one this year. Practice tests have been thrust upon them from all directions.
Education departments have posted materials on their websites for teachers to use which include sample test questions for students to practice on. The official NAPLAN website publishes the tests from previous years, which schools can use to practice for tests. The message is clear to everyone – get your class scores and school scores up.
NAPLAN has been a boon for education publishers. One publisher has been actively promoting its product in schools to encourage more test preparation. Pascal Press has promoted its online Excel Test Zone test practice website to teachers and parents through direct emails to schools and teachers.
Email messages sent to teachers earlier this year offered free two-week trials to better prepare students for the NAPLAN tests. The email stated:
Excel Test Zone is an online resource for teachers that provides thousands of carefully graded questions which closely match the format and style of questions that students will get in the actual NAPLAN tests…. Once registered, your students enter the interactive testing zone where they can complete online Numeracy and Literacy tests and measure their progress against state and national rankings.
Many schools have used the program for up to an hour a day and encouraged students to practice at home. The website promotion for parents prides itself on creating the same test pressure climate as NAPLAN:
Students have to do the tests under pressure. Our books and paper tests help students do this, but Excel Test Zone does it with a real clock! All the tests are based on actual test times, so your child is tested under test conditions all the time!
Schools have also invested heavily in preparing teachers for NAPLAN with professional development workshops and materials. For example, there has been a flurry of test preparation activities and resources on persuasive writing which is a theme of the NAPLAN writing test this week.
ACARA informed education authorities that this year’s writing test would involve a change of writing form. Students this week will write a persuasive text instead of a narrative text. This should not have caught schools and teachers off guard because persuasive writing and other non-narrative forms are used across all curriculum areas as students progress through school.
Yet, the decision created turmoil in schools. It was as if persuasive writing was new to the curriculum. It became the focus of preparation for NAPLAN. Suddenly, there was a spurt of test preparation activities and resources on persuasive writing. Education departments posted teaching resources on their website to assist teachers.
For example, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority encouraged schools to have students practice for the persuasive writing test and provided a range of test preparation materials online. The South Australian Department of Education issued a 58-page guide to teachers in February on how to teach persuasive writing. The Queensland Studies Authority has a special Assessment Bank of online test preparation materials for teachers and the Western Australian Department of Education has a special NAPLAN Planner website for teachers.
Education consultants were called in. Professional development on persuasive writing suddenly became hugely popular. Education consultants around Australia were inundated with requests to lead professional development workshops.
According to two leading education consultants, teachers everywhere were frantic about the change, spending inordinate amounts of time having students write persuasive texts. Students everywhere were drilled in persuasive writing. Their observation is telling:
We thought we’d moved past the nineteenth century “factory approach” to education where students were all doing the same thing at the same time as they were moved along a production line. Is this what we want for students today?
NAPLAN has been a huge distraction to learning and teaching in schools across the country. It has diverted resources to drilling students in literacy and numeracy at the expense of deeper learning in these areas and at the expense of other key learning areas. This is not education improvement; it is education debasement. It is entirely due to the My School website. None of this was happening prior to the publication of school results on My School.
The irony of it all is that the harm done to education by intense test preparation are well recognised by the Prime Minister’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Tom Bentley, a former education advisor to the Blair Government. He has previously acknowledged the deleterious effect of intensive test practice on the curriculum and the broader learning of students. Writing on the English experience with publishing school results and league tables several years ago he warned:
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]
This warning should be part of his next brief to the Prime Minister on NAPLAN and My School. He should say that it means that reports to parents on student progress and school results on My School are likely to be artificially inflated and present illusory gains. He should recommend that the Government change tack if it wants to improve student achievement and workforce skills.