Gillard’s best mate Obama is no rap for NAPLAN
President Obama’s attack on high-stakes, standardised tests, like Australia’s National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), proves once again that Australian policy makers and educrats are championing failed educational experiments at the very time they are being ditched overseas.
It’s no secret that Australia’s national literacy and numeracy tests at years 3, 5, 7 and 9, and the policy of making individual school results public on the My School website, are copied from the US and, to a lesser extent, England.
Such is Julia Gillard’s infatuation with the US model of testing and accountability that she invited the New York Education Chancellor, Joel Klein, to Australia and justified NAPLAN and My School on the success of the New York model.
The ALP Commonwealth Government has even gone as far as signing a memorandum of understanding with the US Department of Education, led by President Obama’s appointee Arnie Duncan, to share programs and expertise in areas like assessment and making schools and teachers more accountable.
President Obama, in a speech given last week at a school in Washington, argues that standardised, high-risk tests associated with the No Child Left Behind legislation (much like NAPLAN) are educationally counter-productive and that there are better and more constructive ways to monitor student and school performance.
The President argues, “One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math.
“All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting.”
Such are the doubts and fears about the New York education experiment under Gillard’s favourite, Joel Klein, that the State Board of Regents appointed the US testing expert Dr Daniel Koretz, from Harvard University, to investigate. Not only is it now accepted that students’ results under Klein failed to improve, there is also evidence that the tests had been dumbed down, thus, making it easier for students to pass.
As Diane Ravitch details in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, it is also the case that focusing on high-stakes tests narrows the curriculum, places teachers and schools under unfair pressure and takes time from valuable subjects like music, physical education and drama and the arts.
In England, where much of Australia’s education revolution has been copied, there are also doubts about the effectiveness and value of national tests. A 2008 inquiry into testing by the House of Commons concluded that too much testing led to important subjects being undervalued, teachers being forced to ‘teach to the test’ and some schools being pressured to exclude students with learning difficulties.
As noted by Alan Smithers, an English academic who visited Australia last year, “If the schools and teachers are judged by students’ scores, and there are rewards and sanctions attached, the scores can be driven up by teaching test-taking techniques. Thus the illusion of improvement can be created while genuine learning languishes”.
Closer to home, it is also the case that Dr Margaret Wu, a testing expert at The University of Melbourne, argues that tests like NAPLAN are unreliable and invalid as they are often subject to significant flaws and errors.
In a paper printed in Australian Education Union’s journal Professional Voice, Volume 8, Dr Wu writes that, “NAPLAN results do not provide sufficiently accurate information on student performance, student progress or school performance”, and that using the results to judge teachers and schools (as the ALP Government and ACARA are seeking to do) is “educationally unsound”.
No wonder Australian parents have deserted the My School webpage. When launched early last year Julia Gillard boasted that the site had 1.7 million hits in 24 hours. The equivalent figure for the recently released My School 2.0 webpage, according to Peter Garrett, the current minister for education is 186, 000 visitors.
As proven by a recent survey of Queensland parents by Independent Schools Queensland, the reality is that many parents fail to see the value of the My School website, preferring instead to learn about schools via friends and colleagues, other parents, open days and visits to schools to talk to teachers and principals.
In a recent keynote speech that sank without a trace, titled Beyond My School 2.0 and hosted by the Grattan Institute, Minister Garrett praised My School 2.0 and NAPLAN as representing new era in transparency and accountability. Garrett has also signalled that the Gillard Government intends to force schools to release more detailed financial information and to make it public on the website.
The irony is that as the same time ALP politicians and educrats like Barry McGaw are forcing more testing and accountability on teachers and schools, the evidence from both here and overseas is that the model being pushed is flawed, educationally unsound and moribund.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute (www.edstandards.com.au) and author of ‘Australia’s Education Revolution’.
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