Whenever I think of the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority, I become someone I don’t like. ACARA provides the national curriculum and NAPLAN tests offered to Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 students each May. Schools that improve on NAPLAN get rewards. Schools that don’t get publicly outed on the MySchool website. Consistent with trends in the US, where parents and students are boycotting standardised tests, the number of parents withdrawing their children from NAPLAN is increasing, with the largest proportion in the ACT, followed by Queensland.
If your children have been complaining more than usually about boredom and busy work at school, NAPLAN and the national curriculum may be contributing. ACARA could be leading us into the 21st century but instead they’re cramming curriculums that make students bellyache and fiddling with what have become high-stakes tests of aspects of literacy and numeracy. I know ACARA is only doing what it’s told, but should we expect better from an organisation set up to improve educational outcomes for all?
The latest research by the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney concludes that “NAPLAN is not in the best interests of young Australians.” I’m glad someone said it. It should have been ACARA. The latest small qualitative study undertaken by the Institute found only a quarter of parents interviewed were positive about NAPLAN. Students reported stress, some serious. ACARA says those pesky schools should stop coaching and that’s what’s stressing students, not MySchool ranking their school and their school ranking their teachers, not the feeling of being ranked themselves, and not the private schools their parents want them to attend using NAPLAN for admission decisions.
Companies are now advertising their NAPLAN wares – “Improve scores by 9 per cent!” and even schools that might eschew NAPLAN are prepping students for the tests. Come on ACARA, you can’t run a testing regime and publish the results and then take no responsibility when us lab rats try harder to jump through the flaming hoops you’ve set up.
There are worrying aspects to the tests themselves. Take spelling. When you get a NAPLAN report, it will include a band called language conventions claiming among other things to have tested a student’s ability to spell correctly. But what’s tested is not spelling. Students fix errors in text. NAPLAN tests proofreading and calls it spelling. I’m not splitting hairs. These are different skills. We don’t know whether students can spell from NAPLAN because it doesn’t test spelling and the strategies involved. But the official report will tell you your child’s spelling has been tested and they are in Band x as a speller. From 2017, if current plans go ahead, NAPLAN's writing test - let's not even think about how you write something like a narrative or persuasive text in 40 minutes when you're seven years old - will be marked by a computer. That will make it even easier for teachers to teach to the test because there will be a program that looks for certain things and so long as you can drill children to learn those things, you'll be set. Whether they can write or not, of course, will be entirely irrelevant.
These issues raise questions about whether the tests measure what they set out to measure but the larger problem is what happens to learning when your sole focus is on improving your NAPLAN scores at all levels, when the test itself becomes more important than the learning that it's supposed to aid. Italy led the world with slow food but slow education has emerged from the UK where standardised testing and a national curriculum have been flailing about since 1988. Championed by Eton College English teacher Mike Grenier who says UK education now mimics the worst aspects of a McDonald’s production line, slow education seeks deeper engagement in learning than a one-size-fits-all curriculum and standardised-test-driven regime can foster. One slow school devotes time to student-designed and led projects, examined by viva. Another has turned classrooms into small-group spaces with opportunities for students to learn independently about topics of interest to them.
Research shows that what leads to better learning outcomes is better teaching, but improving teaching is hard. It's much easier to run a testing regime and write busy curriculums. I become someone I don’t like when I think of ACARA because education is driving towards a place where McTeachers forcefeed McLearners just what they can regurgitate over three autumn mornings, a place others in the world are already turning back from.
If today’s good teachers remain in the profession, and students hang in for the lifelong learning journey, it may be in spite of not because of what school gives them. At the risk of stretching and mixing the metaphor, we’re stuffed so full we’re asleep at the wheel of this 21st century, on the wrong side of the road. Wake us up, ACARA. Please.