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January.11.2016

NAPLAN and edu-business: the commercialisation of schooling in Australia

By Anna Hogan

NAPLAN testing is orchestrating a high-stakes environment in Australian schools where schools, teachers, students and even parents feel the pressure to perform and do well. Edu-businesses are capitalising on this high-stakes environment for commercial advantage.

Schools and governments now purchase products and services that are explicitly tied to test development and preparation, data analysis and management, remedial services and online content. American academic Patricia Burch, claims that the test industry in the USA is worth $48 billion per year. While it is difficult at this stage to put a precise figure on Australia’s test industry, it is increasingly obvious that the NAPLAN market is rapidly growing.

The NAPLAN market

The NAPLAN market includes practice tests, student workbooks, online programs, tutoring, teacher professional development, data analysis services for schools and so on. For example, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) offers a number of progressive achievement tests (PAT) to provide norm-referenced information to teachers about their students. Schools often purchase a PAT test in Mathematics or English at a cost of $7.50 per student, and subsequently utilises this data to identify their student’s strengths and weakness in preparation for NAPLAN. Similarly, there are online resources like ‘StudyLadder’ or ‘Excel Test Zone’ that offer sample style NAPLAN questions to help students prepare for the test. There are also companies that target the insecurities of parents. Services such as ‘NAPLAN tutor’ offer a membership for $79 that will allow parents to access a range of NAPLAN tutorials. Private tutors also offer NAPLAN specific services.

Some edu-businesses now offer professional development and data analysis services to schools and teachers. For example, ‘Mighty Minds’, ‘Seven Steps’ and ‘Count on Numeracy’ all offer NAPLAN specific workshops. Seven Steps displays the following testimonial on its website: ‘Two of our teachers attended your seven steps seminar last year. They used the program in the Grade 3 cohort. Our NAPLAN results in those two grades were outstanding’. Similarly, Mind Matters suggests that its NAPLAN workshop will ‘focus on revising fundamental skills that are essential for students’ school careers and will prepare them for the NAPLAN test’. This type of marketing capitalises on the anxieties of schools and teachers.

Pearsonisation of NAPLAN

Pearson was among the edu-businesses that were contracted by the States and Territories in their delivery of NAPLAN. In 2012 every State contracted the printing and distribution of the NAPLAN tests to Pearson, with the exception of Queensland who contracted Fuji Xerox for this process. The actual testing of students occurs in schools under the direction of school staff and the subsequent marking of the test is a process overseen by most of the relevant educational authorities in the States and Territories. However, in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, this process was also contracted to Pearson, and it became responsible for recruiting, training and paying NAPLAN test markers. For example, this contract is worth $41.6 million in NSW. This presents Pearson as a central agent in the NAPLAN policy network, and moreover, suggests it has significant contractual obligations with Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.

Other areas where edu-businesses is at work in Australia

Edu-businesses are at work elsewhere in Australia. They are also contracted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in the development of the test and the analysis and reporting of the results on My School. For example, in 2012, ACARA spent over $4 million contracting ACER, Pearson, Educational Measurement Solutions and Educational Assessment Australia for a range of services. Some of these services included item development ($2,075,717), trialling of the test items ($681,253), equating of the test items ($527,848) and analysis and reporting of the results ($610,247).

These increasing amounts of private business activity have caused concern amongst a number of social commentators who believe that education as a public activity, serving the public interest, should remain within the control of the public domain. Yet, the primary aim of involving edu-businesses seems to be to modernise the public sector and make it more effective. This, of course, is based on the assumption that market-oriented management will lead to greater cost efficiency and improved success for governments

Problems with the growing edu-business activity in Australia

NAPLAN clearly represents the emergence of new ‘business opportunities’ in Australian education policy. Edu-business, from multinational corporations like Pearson to smaller national providers such as ACER now contribute to education policy and practice in various ways. In this environment ‘contractualism’ or partnerships between the public and the private sector have become the new normal. ACARA argues edu-businesses are an important and necessary component of developing NAPLAN and similarly, schools and teachers embed products and services from the private sector across all aspects of teaching and learning, particularly in regards to NAPLAN preparation.

My concern is that edu-businesses are increasingly contributing to policy development and teaching and learning practices in ways that have displaced traditional expertise. For example, according to ACARA, NAPLAN is delivered by ‘experts’ across the field. It seems problematic that experts in this case are not teachers, curriculum developers or even university researchers. Instead, experts are constituted by their ability to offer ‘value-for-money’ on competitive tender applications.

Edu-businesses are now closely associated with the role of policymaking and the state. What groups are becoming excluded from, and included in, processes of public policy?

Another concern I have is that the products and services schools and teachers are engaging with in preparation for NAPLAN are often shaped by ‘generalists’ with little classroom experience or formal research background in education. Many of these products are underpinned by agendas of profit making, not evidence.

Similarly, there are potential conflict of interest issues in which edu-businesses like Pearson are contracted to develop aspects of NAPLAN, but also create revenue through marking the NAPLAN test and the selling of resources to improve student’s NAPLAN results.

What can we do?

Of course, some of the work the private sector does is legitimate and important to how we deliver public education effectively. However, if edu-businesses continue to proliferate like they have in recent years, education has the potential to be monopolised by for-profit agendas. We must move beyond the rhetoric of edu-businesses in their promises to transform education and offer solutions to our problems. Instead, we have a responsibility to engage with the private sector more critically and make sure we protect public education and our expertise as deliverers of it.

 

Anna-Hogan4Anna Hogan is a lecturer in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Queensland. Anna has been researching the role of global edu-business on education policy and practice. She is currently working on projects that investigate the privatisation of Australian public schooling, the effects of curriculum outsourcing on teachers’ work and the commercialisation of student health and wellbeing. Anna has recent publications in the Australian Educational Researcher, Journal of Education Policy and Critical Studies in Education.

 

7 thoughts on “NAPLAN and edu-business: the commercialisation of schooling in Australia

  1. Keith Heggart says:

    Hi Anna,
    This is an excellent and thought provoking post – I was wondering if you had considered other commercialisation factors. For example, the growing pressure for schools to adopt STEM models of education – is this motivated by industry groups?

  2. Anna Hogan says:

    Hi Keith. A great question, and definitely something myself and colleagues have been considering, especially in regards to adaptive learning technologies. It’s important to note that industry doesn’t necessarily drive the system, so much as it recognises emerging business opportunities to capitalise on. For example, teachers might struggle to personalise learning for all the students in their class and identify their respective strengths and weaknesses. Edu-businesses develop software products that can do this by collecting continuous data on students, run correlation analyses and provide a succinct analysis or report on each students” performance. The edu-business can then market these products as a ‘solution’ to this ‘problem’. An obvious concern here is that learning expertise here is defined by an algorithm not the classroom teacher. Hence, I would argue that commercialisation of schooling is a complex phenomenon with benefits, problems and hidden consequences.

  3. Black Adder says:

    Pearson – the biggest education company in the world yet most teachers have no idea how it is running education.

  4. Marie Cullen says:

    Thankyou Anna for putting this piece together so clearly. I am a teacher in Sydney. I am researching ideas and information related to standardised testing vs. education. I’m all for educating the children I teach, as opposed to exam preparation for NAPLAN, Selective High and OC tests etc. It’s a waste of children’s time, teachers’ energy, parents’ time with children, and a huge waste of funding which could be much better used directly into schools. Standardised testing is not education.

  5. Anna Hogan says:

    Hi Marie. A good point, and teachers like yourself know first-hand the pervasive effects of NAPLAN and the way it can potentially work to narrow curriculum to focus on literacy and numeracy and not the more holistic education of our children. I do not argue against the use of testing, and even standardised testing can be beneficial under the right circumstances. Regardless, standardised testing has created a new market for business opportunity in education that is tied to profit making. As you point out, this neoliberal education agenda does not necessarily benefit our students. Yet, according to ACARA ‘the debate about NAPLAN’s value is one from which we should move on’ as it is ‘has been supported consistently by education authorities, policy makers, school authorities, principal associations, parents and students’. Furthermore, ACARA argues that ‘NAPLAN development costs amount to a fraction of one per cent of education expenditure’ and that ‘the data we get are invaluable. (see more at this link: http://www.acara.edu.au/news_media/acara_update/201504_acara_update,_april_2015.html). I think these statements speak to a certain disconnect between policy and policymakers and the lived experiences of our schools, teachers and students.

  6. Marie Cullen says:

    Thanks for your reply, Anna. Naturally, ACARA will defend its position.

    There’s great value in assessing children as a direct guide to matching suitable materials and a program that will develop them. I’m sure it’s not all a loss with NAPLAN, but I do question its cost:benefit.

    You have presented a big picture of the privatising of education, with financial benefits flowing to large companies, which have too much influence in this country and others.

    It has not produced a more educated group of children, unfortunately. I know, as I teach them and have to intervene significantly in their education.

    I’ll watch out for your articles. Marie

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