Catalyst data': Perverse systemic effects of audit and accountability in Australian schooling

Year: 2012

Author: Lingard, Bob, Sam Sellar

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper examines the perverse effects of the new accountability regime central to the Rudd/Gillard Labor government's national reform agenda in schooling. The focus is on NAPLAN results and their functioning as 'catalyst data': data that encourage various stakeholders to inquire into the performance of governments in relation to service delivery and to make changes based on the results. These data are now pivotal to school and system accountability in Australia.
We offer a single-case study of how NAPLAN has become high stakes testing for systems, with two embedded sites of analysis. The first site is education federalism in Australia, specifically the relationships between the federal government and three States (Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland) in negotiating performance targets on NAPLAN for reward payments in respect of intergovernmental partnerships to improve literacy and numeracy. We show how Victoria used 2009 data as a baseline and set ambitious targets but failed to meet them, while Queensland set much less ambitious targets, met them and was rewarded. New South Wales met their targets, but these combined literacy and numeracy scores across multiple year levels, obfuscating the evidence and the emphasis on transparency in the current agenda. The second site of analysis is the Queensland education system and the ramifications of the poor performance of the State on the 2008 NAPLAN. This resulted in a review commissioned by the Premier, a Report on how to improve performance, and the introduction of Teaching and Learning Audits and State-wide targets for improvement on NAPLAN. Here we focus on the perverse effects of this highly politicised agenda.
Our case study demonstrates how national testing and audit regimes have become high stakes for State education systems, in the first instance by demonstrating effects across systems, while in the second demonstrating effects within the organisational structure of one system. States now seek to protect their 'reputational capital', particularly in the context of high profile media reporting of NAPLAN performance and progress toward National Partnership targets. Our analysis draws on approximately thirty research interviews with (a) senior and relevant policy makers in State and federal systems and in relevant statutory authorities at State and federal levels, (b) personnel in international organisations, including the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and (c) researchers and academics involved in debates about national and international testing agendas.