NAPLAN 2018 — Who really needs to know?

We are at that time of the year in Australia again when irony battles with idiocy and hardworking, committed teachers shake their heads in disbelief, as people who should know better broadcast conclusions unsubstantiated by evidence or logic.

And if we were ever foolish enough to believe that Federal politicians really cared about education, Simon Birmingham’s departure as Education Minister in the week that Naplan results are released speaks volumes.

When the 2018 NAPLAN testing took place in May, Robert Randall, CEO of ACARA tweeted his suggestion that people keep NAPLAN in perspective, pointing out that it is 4 hours, four times in their life, over seven years of schooling. Seriously, it is not that big a deal and you don’t actually have to do it.

This morning however, on the way to work, the radio host was whipping up a storm over one small aspect of the results. That students writing ability has decreased consistently since testing began. Let us be very clear, we are not talking about spelling and grammar, or the ability to construct a sentence. This is not about literacy, no the ‘writing’ being discussed was the physical act of producing legible writing. Writing that someone else could read.

Now I am old. I went to school at a time when all writing was done by hand, even tertiary essays were written by hand and sent to a typist. (if you had any money) My handwriting was good, not because I had some magical skill, but because my Dad made me sit and write letters when I was in primary school. If the writing was not good, he would make me do it again. The learning I did in school was consolidated by work done at home under parent supervision. Of course there has been a decrease in handwriting ability in the last couple of decades. Students spend most of their out of school hours on electronic devices of some sort and I don’t see many parents encouraging otherwise.

English teachers, indeed all sorts of teachers, spend a great deal of time trying to get students to understand that the people who mark their exams can only mark them if they can read them. No matter how brilliant the ideas or the composition, if it is illegible it is useless.

This dilemma is only occurring because we are in a transition period. Just as we transitioned from writing on a board with chalk, to pencils, to fountain pens to ball-points, we are now transitioning to digital production. Many students simply do not write with a pen anymore and before we start freaking out about that we need to ask how many adults still do. Approximately 20% of year 9 students completed the test online and those students performed better in the writing tasks. This is not rocket science. The most serious implications of these results are not that students don’t have pretty handwriting, it is that educational inequality is increasing for students who don’t have the same access to technology.

While I have never met a teacher who thinks NAPLAN is a good idea, Peter Goss from the Grattan Institute sees some benefits. So, who should get access to the results and who shouldn’t?

Educators and education researchers who understand the whole landscape can get validation of their concerns. That is to say that educators know that schools in some areas are disadvantaged, they know that there are differences in policy and outcomes across the States and Territories, they know that where you live is a significant factor in educational performance and they know that despite all these things, some schools still manage to do amazing things.

What is more, they understand that children develop at different rates and that one of the most significant factors in educational outcomes is the educational achievement of the parents. The 2018 results once again show that NSW, Victoria and the ACT continue to be the highest-performing systems, scoring at or above the national average across all domains and year levels. Educators understand that this is because of the concentration of professionals in the large urban areas and not because there is something in the water that makes people smarter.

The general public and most parents should certainly not get access to the results. The general public because they really don’t need to know. They most assuredly don’t need to be whipped into a frenzy by radio hosts and others whose sole purpose seems to be the creation of drama and controversy. For most parents it is because there is not a lot they can do about them. Parents have enough to worry about in raising children without having to worry about whether their precious child is ‘average.’ Parents need to be able to have conversations with their child’s teacher to work out how they are going, based on the child’s progress in the real world they live in.

One of the most obvious problems associated with parents knowing NAPLAN results is the idea that they can then choose to go to schools with better results. Why is that a problem? It is a problem because they may not realise that it is the educational achievements of the parent body that contributes to the better results. If the parent body changes, so may the results.

However, the most important reason that results need to be kept from the public is that data, while it can be useful, is dangerous in the hands of people who don’t understand it. It is data from broken testing systems that we see being used to send Australian education backwards to ways of teaching that we know don’t work. Differentiated teaching and student agency in learning are the foundations of 21st Century education. Standardised testing belongs to an old paradigm that is no longer relevant or useful.

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Carolyn Newall

Carolyn Newall

Teacher, First time business owner, CEO at We Teach Well, Supporter of social enterprise and profit for purpose.