In late June, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland announced a joint review into the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy, otherwise known as NAPLAN. The three state governments will engage a panel of education experts to assess the effectiveness of the annual standardised testing program for school students, now in its 10th year.
Arguing the case for the review, Victorian education minister James Merlino said: “It is common sense to review [NAPLAN] and see what changes we should make to ensure it is meeting the needs of schools, parents and students”. Merlino believes the review could lead to significant changes or even the scrapping of NAPLAN altogether.
Many educators would be happy to see the end of standardised testing. But this review is no guarantee this will happen, even if NAPLAN is scrapped. Education ministers are already suggesting that, in such a scenario, a different version of NAPLAN would be needed.
Standardised tests require all test takers to answer the same questions that are then marked on a unified grading system. They are supposed to allow for comparisons to be made between students and within and across schools.
The NAPLAN results for each school are published on the MySchool website. They are then discussed in the media where schools are often ranked from “best to worst” with reputations assigned accordingly.
Additionally, teachers are judged to be more or less effective, and students more or less competent, based on NAPLAN results.
This has also led to schools advertising and selecting students on the basis of NAPLAN results.
In a society where competition, rather collaboration, is encouraged and inadequate educational resources are distributed unequally and unfairly, standardised tests can hardly provide neutral or objective comparisons.
Narrowing of curriculum
Moreover standardised tests have been criticised for leading to a narrowing of the curriculum.
This happens because teachers, even if not explicitly instructed, feel the pressure to teach for the tests. If a school or a class performs poorly, the school, teachers and students will all be judged badly. This leads to teachers and schools doing all they can to get the best possible NAPLAN results, rather than focus on the best educational outcomes for students.
Subjects that are not tested — such as languages, music, history and art — do not get as much time or resources devoted to them. Subjects tested by NAPLAN — English and maths — are reduced down to focusing on the areas that are going to be tested.
For example, one year, English teachers in Years 7 and 9 (the years tested at high school level) focused their classes on persuasive writing because that was the writing style NAPLAN was testing. Valuable time that could have been spent on other writing styles or areas of English were monopolised by preparations for the NAPLAN tests.
Many Year 9 students do not take the NAPLAN tests very seriously, perhaps because they do not see standardised tests as providing any meaningful learning experience. As such, their results do not accurately reflect their abilities.
Some students are “voluntarily” excluded from the tests by parents, possibly because they do not want them to endure the stress created by the tests. Others give in to pressure from schools who do not want results brought down by students who might perform poorly on the tests. Some parents and students refuse to participate because they object to standardised tests.
When schools are measured by an external means, teachers deal with impositions in different ways — all of which is distorts the results. For example, when school inspectors were used to measure performance, teachers would tell their class to raise their right hand if they knew the answer or their left if they did not, but that all had to raise their hands. Alternatively, teachers would pass on the inspectors' questions to others.
The upshot is that standardised test results are far from accurate.
Another problem is that lot of time is taken up with the tests. When they are held, teacher's and support staff’s time and resources are entirely consumed with runnning the tests.
Administering woes were exacerbated this year by online testing, in which thousands experienced connection problems. Some students were reduced to tears because they kept losing their work, and many were forced to re-sit the test. Some schools did not have enough computers for the students.
The alternative to standardised testing is to rely on a teacher’s assessment of the students they see, engage with and teach each day, and whose work they regularly assess.
Teachers make the best assessment of their students based on the curriculum that they have been taught, not a generic test designed by someone that has never set foot in their classroom.
[Mary Merkenich is a teacher and active in the Australian Education Union (AEU) Victoria branch. Norrian Rundle is a retired teacher and former activist in the AEU Victoria branch. Both are members of the Socialist Alliance.]