I have always found tests and exams, whether the NAPLAN or Victorian Certificate of Education, very problematic.
For one thing, it only tests English and numeracy, as if other subjects are not important and do not contribute to numeracy and literacy skills.
For several years, educators have known that there are different learning styles and techniques. Some people have one dominant learning style, others use different styles in different situations, and styles are not fixed.
Consequently it is important for teachers to cater for all styles. For example, for those students who are predominantly physical learners, activities that include movement like acting or hands-on tasks such as making things are helpful. For those who are predominantly social learners, pair and group work is desirable.
There are about seven different learning styles, and this means planning lessons and assessment needs to consider and include a range of activities or tasks. NAPLAN doesn’t do this.
These tests are a very individual activity. They do not encourage collaboration and can lead to unhealthy competition.
The pressure to prepare students for NAPLAN forces teachers to narrow instruction to the material to be tested. These tests are not one-hour or one-day affairs, they swallow up whole weeks of classroom time.
Consequently, less time is spent on the arts, languages, sciences, physical education and the social sciences. With their importance growing, the pressure to teach to them and to narrow the curriculum has risen.
There is a very significant assumption underpinning standardised tests.
This assumption is that students are all very much alike; that they have access to similar knowledge and experiences and have equal possibilities to acquire certain skills. But this is not the case.
Every teaching day, I have up to 25 individuals in front of me.
I have taught students who don’t get breakfast before they come to school, others who may have been abused or witnessed violence in the home. I have had children in my class who live in a caravan in the backyard, and children from dysfunctional homes.
I have students with disabilities, high performing children, Aboriginal children, children from refugee and migrant backgrounds.
There are children who live in poverty, where there are no books, magazines or newspapers at home and whose parents are illiterate. I have met parents who come to every parent-teacher interview, and have a superb relationship with their children. But that is not the case for all of my students.
I believe that the differences in engagement and success at school are powerfully influenced by these circumstances. The NAPLAN tests do not take these differences into account. They cannot measure the effect of these factors.
So how valid is it then to conclude from a snap shot test whether a child is improving, is interested and engaged, that a teacher is effective, or that a whole school is a good school?
Isn’t all this — stressing children, turning them off learning, using boring repetitive practice tests and narrowing the curriculum — the opposite of what education should be about?
Haven’t we come a long way since rote learning and a heavy emphasis on teacher-centred classrooms and a very simplistic assessment method?
I believe that standardised testing takes the joy out of learning and teaching. It stifles children’s potential as dynamic and creative learners. Students will have less time for self-directed learning or for small group work. The main way that students will demonstrate their knowledge and skills will be through practice tests.
So what is the alternative?
Schools should have a broad curriculum with a comprehensive school-based assessment and reporting system. This is a better way of identifying problems at the school and individual level. Teachers know their students’ needs and their strengths.
There already is such a system but teachers are hampered by a lack of resources and too little time to really effectively address all the issues that impact many students before they have even entered the classroom.
The Australian Education Union is currently campaigning for a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA). The media loves to reduce what we are actually fighting for to a wage claim, but the other demands in our EBA are the things that would improve student learning.
These demands include smaller class sizes, more time for planning and correction and an end to contract teaching.
More planning time means that I can sit with my colleagues and exchange ideas about how best to plan lessons.
It means that I have time to read the latest educational research and I have time to see my students individually and discuss their progress with them, or phone their parents to include them in their child’s educational development.
Smaller classes mean that I have more time to individually work with my students during lessons.
This is all logical stuff but the politicians try to confuse us by repeating their mantras that money is not the answer, that giving us more time for planning, collaboration and innovation and more time with our students is not the answer.
I think it is vital that teachers, through our unions, restart a campaign to prevent these tests going ahead and to make certain that we get rid of them for good.
Many teachers are opposed to the NAPLAN tests. This was demonstrated at the February 14 stop-work meeting where a third of union members voted for a 48-hour strike on the dates of the NAPLAN.
A community campaign here in Australia against NAPLAN will strengthen any action that teachers take and ensure success. We need each other; we need teachers and parents to work together, especially given the restrictive industrial laws in Australia.
A coalition of teachers and parents would show federal and state governments that the opposition is broad and I believe it would lead to a rapid growth of such a coalition.