What NAPLAN and VW have in common and how teaching to a test never helps anyone learn


Volkwagen’s recent woes are a reminder that when you set up a testing regime it can have unintended consequences. The German giant isn’t the only carmaker with a flexible approach to emissions testing. VW might have cheated a lot, using software that knew how to fake it during a test, but in Europe, where private companies do emissions tests, many carmakers cheat a little. They tape over bodywork gaps, remove wing mirrors and take out weighty stereo systems to improve results. They cheat because their goal is to ace the test, not make cleaner cars.

It’s a bit like NAPLAN, Australia's national assessment program which is supposed to tell us how we’re going as a nation in developing literacy and numeracy skills among school students. Emissions are probably easier to measure absolutely than literacy or numeracy, and NAPLAN’s makers at the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority have struggled mightily with what a blunt instrument they’ve made.

Still, they publish NAPLAN results and send individual kids their test scores, just like cars. This has made a grunt-level test of some aspects of literacy and numeracy into an absolute determinant of a child’s literacy and numeracy skill level at a given time. Instead of being one of a number of ways of looking at literacy and numeracy, it’s become the way. As a result, just like carmakers, schools and teachers have started concentrating not on learning, not even on literacy and numeracy, but on trying to get better marks on the test. Some of them even cheat.

We’re highly critical of schools that cheat a lot on NAPLAN tests, the ones who tell some kids to stay home on NAPLAN days or give out the answers. But  everyone cheats a little, cramming kids full of what will be tested, at the expense of other things, like science, history, the arts and even actual literacy and numeracy skill development as opposed to what’s tested.

When you focus on test results, people get busy focusing on the test. You end up with cars that pollute and say they don’t, and kids who can do NAPLAN but can’t actually read, write and add up let alone think, analyse or create.

VW’s Golf advertising campaign in Australia included a bunch of wry vignettes of a bright-eyed young salesman who takes the Golf to the bush. It has revolutionary systems for cornering and fuel saving at traffic lights, he tells us, and the gag is that they’re irrelevant in places with long straight highways and traffic-light-free towns. Das Auto, the narrator deadpans at the end, the car, “impressive almost anywhere.” Not so impressive anywhere, as it turns out. What a shame.

First published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend magazine.