Don Carter

The dark side of NAPLAN: it’s not just a benign ‘snapshot’

The release of the latest NAPLAN results this week identified a problem with student performance in writing. This prompted the federal minister for education, Simon Birmingham, to state these results “are of real concern”. And the CEO of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Robert Randall, added that “we’ll have a conversation with states and territories” to pinpoint the exact problem.

You get the message: there is a problem. As I see it we have a much bigger problem than the one the minister and ACARA are talking about.

At the moment, we have two concurrent and competing ‘systems’ of education operating in Australia, and particularly in NSW: one is the implementation of the state-authorised curriculum and the other, the regime of mass tests which includes NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate.

The bigger problem

 NAPLAN results get everyone’s attention, not just mainstream media and parents, but also teachers and school communities. Attention is effectively diverted from curriculum implementation. That means that resources, teacher attention and class time is soaked up with attempts to improve the results of under-performing students. It means that the scope and depth of the curriculum is often ignored in favour of drills and activities aimed at improving student test performance.

In a way, this is sadly ironic for NSW, given that new syllabuses rolled out across 2014-2015 have the development of literacy and numeracy skills as two of seven general capabilities. Specific content in these syllabuses has been developed to strengthen and extend student skills in these two areas. 

Before teachers had the chance to fully implement the new syllabuses and assess student learning, the NSW government jumped in and imposed a ‘pre-qualification’ for the HSC: that students would need to achieve a Band 8 in the Year 9 NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy test. Yet another requirement in the heavily monitored NSW education system.

And if the federal education minister has his way, we’ll see compulsory national testing of phonics for Year 1 students, in addition to the NAPLAN tests administered in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; and then in NSW, students will have to deal with the monolithic HSC.

So the ongoing and worsening problem for schools will be finding the space for teaching and learning based on the NSW curriculum.

Similar things are happening in other states and territories.

The dark side of national testing

As we know, mass testing has a dark side. Far from being the reasonable, benign ‘snapshot’ of a child’s skills at a point in time, we know that the publication of these tests increase their significance so that they become high-stakes tests, where parental choice of schools, the job security of principals and teachers and school funding are affected.

And here I will add a horror story of how this can be taken to extremes. In Florida in 2003, the Governor, Jeb Bush, called the rating of schools based with a letter A-F, based on test results, a “key innovation”. Using this crude indicator, schools in this US state were subsequently ‘labelled’ in a simplistic approach to numerous complex contextual features such as attendance rates, student work samples, the volume and types of courses offered and extracurricular activities.

Already in Australia NAPLAN results have a tight grip on perceptions of teacher and school effectiveness. And quite understandably, schools are concentrating their efforts in writing on the ‘text types’ prescribed in the NAPLAN tests: imaginative writing – including narrative writing, informative writing and persuasive writing.

So what might be going wrong with writing?

As I see it, the pressure of NAPLAN tests is limiting our approaches to writing by rendering types of writing as prescriptive, squeezing the spontaneity and freshness out of students’ responses. I agree it is important for students to learn about the structural and language features of texts and to understand how language works. However it appears that schools are now drilling students with exercises and activities around structural and language features of text types they’ll encounter in the test.

Has the test, in effect, replaced the curriculum?

Again taking NSW as an example, writing has always been central, dating back over a century to the reforms in both the primary and secondary curriculum in 1905 and 1911 respectively. The then Director of Education, Peter Board, ensured that literature and writing were inextricably linked so that the “moral, spiritual and intellectual value of reading literature” for the individual student was purposeful, active and meaningful. In addition to this, value and attention was assigned to the importance of personal responses to literature.

This kind of thinking was evident in the 1971 NSW junior secondary school English syllabus, led by Graham Little, which emphasised students using language in different contexts for different purposes and audiences. In the current English K-10 Syllabus, the emphasis is on students planning, composing, editing and publishing texts in print or digital forms. These syllabus documents value students engaging with and composing a wide range of texts for imaginative, interpretive and analytical purposes. And not just to pass an externally-imposed test.

In a recent research project with schools in south-west Sydney, participating teachers, like so many talented teachers around Australia, improved student writing skills and strengthened student enjoyment of writing by attending to pedagogical practices, classroom writing routines and strategies through providing students choice in writing topics and forms of writing; implementing a measured and gradated approach to writing; using questioning techniques to engage students in higher order thinking and portraying the teacher as co-writer.

These teachers reviewed the pressures and impact of mass testing on their teaching of writing, and like so many around Australia, looked for ways to develop the broad range of skills, knowledge and understandings necessary for all students, as well as ways to satisfy the accountability demands like NAPLAN.

Without the yoke of constant mass testing I believe teachers would be able to get on with implementing the curriculum and we’d see an improvement not only in writing, but also across the board.

 

Don Carter is senior lecturer in English Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Education, Master of Education (Curriculum), Master of Education (Honours) and a PhD in curriculum from the University of Sydney (2013). Don is a former Inspector, English at the Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards and was responsible for a range of projects including the English K-10 Syllabus. He has worked as a head teacher English in both government and non-government schools and was also an ESL consultant for the NSW Department of Education. Don is the secondary schools representative in the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia and has published extensively on a range of issues in English education, including The English Teacher’s Handbook A-Z (Manuel & Carter) and Innovation, Imagination & Creativity: Re-Visioning English in Education (Manuel, Brock, Carter & Sawyer).

Preparing children for work. Is this the best we can do for our students?

I am concerned that recent reforms to the NSW Higher School Certificate are based on a narrowly conceived vision for education which will see students graduating with a basic but limited set of workplace skills, largely incapable of developing aptitudes for life outside work as family members and members of the wider community.

The most concerning points

The narrow focus on workplace skills

The recent controversy in HSC English regarding the reduction in the number of prescribed texts to be studied and the optionalising of the study of novels and poetry in Year 12 – subsequently reversed by the New South Wales Educational Standards Authority (NESA) with regard to the study of novels – would have come as no real surprise to those who have examined the NSW Government’s “Stronger HSC Standards Blueprint” (Blueprint) released in 2016 as part of a series of reforms to the HSC to be implemented by NESA.

This government document has a narrow focus on workplace skills and ignores other important aims of education that seek to develop students into well-rounded individuals.

The Blueprint fails to ask the key questions “what type of people do we want our children to be by the time they leave school?” and “what qualities do they require in order to lead fulfilled lives as individuals and as members of the wider community?” I believe that such a ‘big picture’ document should be presenting carefully considered statements specifying the qualities we need to nurture in our students, such as critical and creative thinking and becoming active citizens of our democracy and empathic members of local and wider communities.

Do we want responsible, communicative individuals who can sustain rich and meaningful relationships within and beyond the family unit? As I see it, the Blueprint fails to mention the types of important human qualities that make us human and allow us to live harmoniously with each other.

Qualities such as compassion, consideration of others, perseverance, tolerance and the ability to act with dignity – a type of ‘cultivation of the self’, where reasoned, thoughtful actions form the basis of interactions with others – are not mentioned.

I believe these qualities are important for all individuals in everyday social situations, such as chatting over the fence or being a member of a political party or sporting club, but also crucially important in the workplace.

Beyond examinations and the future workplace, the document does not acknowledge in any detail, the wider life of the student.

The Blueprint promotes students as robotic automatons for the workplace

The Blueprint projects an Orwellian vision of education where students are cast as economic units – “the future workforce”. The HSC is described as a “platform” to “increase productivity”; the inclusion of buzzwords such as “agile”, “flexible” and “responsive” signal that the most important goal of education is to provide employers with workers who possess “transferrable skills” and a “solid foundation” of literacy and numeracy skills for jobs. The document seems to aim to reduce individuals to compliant workers, skilled for the workforce perhaps, but little else.

Educators Ivor Goodson and Scherto Gill point out that when learning is reduced to the acquisition of employability skills, “people are treated as economic objects”, reducing their capacity for positive social interaction and fulfilling relationships.

Other important personal qualities such as self-awareness, self-esteem, respect for self and others, as highlighted by the by the psychologist Carl Rogers, are also ignored in the Blueprint.

More testing

How much testing can our students take? Not content with NAPLAN testing for students in Years 3, 5 and 9, the Blueprint introduces the requirement that for students in Year 9 will be required to achieve a Band 8 in NAPLAN in reading, writing and numeracy from 2017. This means that 14 year olds – three years or so from sitting for their HSC, in the midst of adolescence and while establishing a sense of self-identity and membership in friendship groups and the wider community, will be saddled with the additional pressure of achieving this ‘benchmark’. And if they don’t meet this standard, they will have to keep attempting the test until they do.

This reform is all about competition, high stakes testing and national curriculum and assessment systems. It is not about what is best for our students.

The Blueprint ignores the federal educational framework

The NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) states that syllabuses are developed “with respect to some overarching views” including those encapsulated in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008). However, nowhere in the Blueprint is the Melbourne Declaration, of which all Australian education ministers were signatories, mentioned. This is an important omission because the Melbourne Declaration is a broad statement which seeks to develop students as well-rounded human beings through two main goals of schooling: the provision of “equity and excellence”; and the development of young people as “successful learners”, “confident and creative individuals” and “active and informed citizens”.

The Melbourne Declaration acknowledges the significance of the arts and the central role schools have in developing “the spiritual, moral and aesthetic dimensions of life; and open up new ways of thinking.” It’s a shame the authors of the Blueprint ignored this key national document.

There’s more to life than work

While no one would argue that high order literacy and numeracy skills are essential for every individual, what is the point of highly literate and numerate individuals who lead unfulfilled lives? Individuals whose identities and creative outlets are linked to nothing but the workplace, where their capacity and desire to communicate and express themselves is diminished by a school career that at best, operated at a functional, instrumental level, aiming to slot them into jobs and little more? What are the future social ramifications for such a narrowly conceived education?

I guess we will find out over the next decade or so.

Apart from stating the obvious regarding the importance of literacy and numeracy, the worthwhile inclusions are few and far between in the Blueprint. For example, the “character attributes” of “curiosity, flexibility and resilience” are commendable inclusions but are not explicated to contexts beyond the workplace. The document does not attend to any substantial degree current geo-political events, seismic shifts in immigration and fails to acknowledge the subsequent challenges for education systems. Unfortunately, it accurately reflects the NSW Government’s blinkered vision of education – just take a look at the Government’s ‘Premier’s Priorities’ where the sole aim for education is to … wait for it … improve test results.

Says it all, really.

 

Don Carter is senior lecturer in English Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Education, Master of Education (Curriculum), Master of Education (Honours) and a PhD in curriculum from the University of Sydney (2013). Don is a former Inspector, English at the Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards and was responsible for a range of projects including the English K-10 Syllabus. He has worked as a head teacher English in both government and non-government schools and was also an ESL consultant for the NSW Department of Education. Don is the secondary schools representative in the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia and has published extensively on a range of issues in English education, including The English Teacher’s Handbook A-Z (Manuel & Carter) and Innovation, Imagination & Creativity: Re-Visioning English in Education (Manuel, Brock, Carter & Sawyer).