The Performative Politics of NAPLAN and My School

Year: 2015

Author: Gorur, Radhika

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

From the moment they were introduced, Australia’s National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and the My School website have been controversial. NAPLAN’s accuracy and its adequacy as a measure of student learning and of a school’s efficiency have been questioned (Ladwig, 2010; Wu, 2010). The usefulness of NAPLAN results for teachers, students and schools has been challenged (Thompson & Harbaugh, 2013). The roles of NAPLAN and My School as new forms of surveillance have been highlighted (Reid, 2010). The detrimental effects of these metrics on teacher professionalism have been noted (Polesel, Rice, & Dulfer, 2014). NAPLAN and My School have been critiqued as technologies of neoliberal governance, in which education comes to be rearticulated in economic terms (Lingard, 2010). The marketisation aided by NAPLAN and My School, and their effects on equity, have also received attention (Gorur, 2013).
This paper adds to the growing critique of NAPLAN and My School, and more broadly of neoliberal accountability strategies by taking a material-semiotic approach and drawing upon the resources of the sociology of numbers and quantification (Gorur, 2013, 2014; Espeland & Stevens, 2008). This relational approach facilitates the exploration of the mechanisms through which policy makers, the general public, parents and schools engage with each other, mediated by NAPLAN and My School. Following Asdal (2011), I will approach NAPLAN and My School as interesting objects – i.e., as objects that gather together a range of actors, translate their interests, reorganise them, and mediate new and different relations between them. Focusing on NAPLAN and My School as ‘interesting objects’ – as actors in their own right, rather than as effects or products of neoliberal governance strategies – provides the opportunity to explore the technologies through which such objects serve to delegate trust, create new intimacies (and distances) and reorganise relations.
NAPLAN and My School produce an abstract, impoverished, and interested version of the very complex phenomenon of schooling in Australia. But these interested observations of NAPLAN and My School are not merely providing more or less useful or accurate accounts of Australian schooling; rather, they are actually changing the very nature of Australian schooling, so that schooling is beginning to more closely resemble the ‘stripped down, abstract version’ presented on the My School website (Scott, 1985, pp. 360). The material semiotic approach taken in this paper provides new insights into the performative politics of NAPLAN and My School.