Escaping the gravity of NAPLAN? Falling in/out of place

Year: 2012

Author: Zipin, Lew, Mills, Martin, Sellar, Sam, Renshaw, Peter, Lingard, Bob, Brennan, Marie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Much has been written about the regulatory and reductive effects of NAPLAN on teachers' professional identities, pedagogical practices, curriculum 'choices' and school cultures. PETRA project data confirm how NAPLAN holds schools of a Queensland high-poverty rural region within a strong gravity of accountability 'upwards', such that schools largely fall into 'proper' place in ranking systems. However, the data also find that alternative spaces emerge in which the hold of NAPLAN is less strong, and forces of richer curriculum possibility gain some sway. An important reality of this emergence is that schools must work with, and cannot simply exclude, students for whom curriculum focussed around 'high-stakes' pressures such as NAPLAN outcomes cause great stress. (This is not to deny that excluding 'low-performing' students from sitting NAPLAN tests has been a strategy for some Australian schools to boost overall performance.) Efforts for enabling such students to 'escape' stress may then allow alternative curricular spaces to emerge.

Relatively strong escape velocities can emerge, for example, in 'vocational' learning programs placed in local community industries. The PETRA project found instances of surprisingly rich curricula where learners were engaged not just vocationally but also academically, in intellectually challenging as well as capacity-building work linked to local community funds of knowledge. In one such instance - a 'vocational' program within a school - students did sit the NAPLAN tests but NAPLAN was given less emphasis than in the school as a whole. In another instance - a 'second chance' school within the system - NAPLAN was benignly neglected. Paradoxically, such strategies can sustain the overarching sway of NAPLAN, enabling schools to strengthen performance overall, while also sustaining possibilities for meaningful curriculum work among those learners whom strong performance pressures alienate.

Weaker escape momentums arise in school spaces that do not pose academic curricular alternatives, but that focus on 'well-being' of targeted students (with schools now testing 'well-being' as data that supplements NAPLAN). In such cases, an ethos of 'nurturing self-esteem', seen as necessary to the school's 'duty of care', displaces NAPLAN pressures.

 In analysing these phenomena, we draw on research interviews, observations and relevant document analysis. Our conceptual framework combines Bourdieuian critical-sociological tools, as well as those of the Funds of Knowledge approach, joined with relevant literature on 'new accountabilities' and 'high-stakes testing' in schools.