It has come to the attention of the authorities that school is placing some youngsters under so much pressure that it might be safer to abolish it entirely and replace it with a network of self-esteem centres where the kiddies are told that they’re all doing a great job with everything and should be really proud of themselves.

Ye olde examinations. Photo: Adelaide Advertiser

This would be the logical end result of the research released this week which found that the NAPLAN tests for grades three, five, seven and nine were placing so much pressure on students that some of them are crying, getting tummy aches and even vomiting ahead of these apparently onerous exams. About 90 per cent of the teachers who responded said that stress was an issue.

I am not setting out to rubbish the research, conducted by the University of Melbourne at the behest of the Whitlam Institute, but to question whether the intention of the teachers who filled in the survey was coloured more by an industrial agenda than a focus on learning for kids and transparency for parents.

The idea of the NAPLAN tests is to have a standardised baseline measure so that students across the nation can be measured against their peers, factoring in issues of economic disadvantage. It is the first time that parents have been able to get a clear overall sense of how their child is performing.

This is a good thing.

I am convinced that the reason the teachers union has railed against it is that parents might start asking questions of their members as to why their child is struggling. It’s a fair question for parents to ask. The fact that it has been resisted by the Australian Education Union and its state union affiliates is in keeping with their long-standing hostility towards data-based measurement of teacher performance, in the same way that every other profession on earth is measured.

The finding that some children are getting strung out by being tested looks like a bit of deliberate tugging at the emotional heart-strings on the part of the respondents to get parents on side.

I doubt the tactic will work, and really hope that it doesn’t work. Most parents want their kids to be put under a degree of pressure. You want them to be stretched. You also want to know how they are faring, which you couldn’t before NAPLAN was introduced.

The absence of testing only sets kids up to fail down the track. If anything, schooling has become less onerous than it was 20 years ago anyway. When I did my matriculation in the mid-80s we had one shot at the title. Year 12 was all that mattered and 100 per cent of our results came from the end of year exams. Now there is more continuous examination throughout the course of the year, making the exams count for less than they once did.

The hostility towards NAPLAN is also a reflection of two depressing modern trends – our unease about robust and constructive criticism, and an absurd level of hysteria about the pressures young people face.

The first trend can be seen in its most obvious and often hilarious form at sports nights, where even the most uncoordinated or indolent or cowardly child will line up and get a medal. I should know, as I’m the proud owner of the coveted award for the Marion High Under 13s Aussie Rules team’s “Most Attentive at Training”, which should really have been engraved with the words “Hopeless blouse who spent the season hiding in the back pocket.”

The second trend of over-estimating pressure is evidenced by the swift capitulation of so many parents to their kids’ demands to attend the nonsense that is schoolies week, as if they have just endured some unparalleled ordeal, like going off war or something. School is hardly a near-death experience. A bit of early pressure is not only healthy, it is absolutely necessary, as life involves heaps of pressure.

Without instruments such as NAPLAN, or plain English report cards, or actual meaningful grades, we will be none the wiser as to how prepared they are for life beyond school.

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    • acotrel says:

      05:49am | 30/11/12

      I was teaching tertiary students a while back.  When one of them plagiarised one of my own papers and submitted it as his own assignment, I failed him in the subject.  I asked him ‘why are you here’, he answered ’ because my father wants me to do this course’. Even at tertiary level you cannot award a fail to students that do not perform.  I no longer have that job.
      ‘The system runs on bullshit’ !

    • tz says:

      06:54am | 30/11/12

      ICB on that comment acotrel. I failed one subject at uni and I was given a fail for it. I have heard of ppl being caught for plagerising and been csught. They were failed from the course but were allowed to reenrol.

    • Nigel says:

      08:15am | 30/11/12

      tz says, gees mate I hope you are not teaching anything to do with English or grammar? It’s the likes of comments put together in such a disgraceful way that the No Pressure attitude will lead to. Life is tough and some of these poor little children need to get at least a little taste of the fact there will be pressure and failures in life. Put them in a bubble and the largest health issue in 20 years will be the metal health system due to everyone being so stressed out.

    • andye says:

      08:59am | 30/11/12

      @nigel: “It’s the likes of comments put together in such a disgraceful way that the No Pressure attitude will lead to.”

      What was that you were saying about English and grammar?

      I think you just zinged yourself.

    • Kika says:

      09:25am | 30/11/12

      I failed a few subjects @ uni I took early on too.

      Acotrel should have said you can’t fail those who pay up front or have powerful connections. They certainly failed me!

    • the other M says:

      11:16am | 30/11/12

      I’ll back aco up on this one. I teach on and off at one of Brisbane’s Uni’s in the sciences and I can assure Punchers that the move towards a fcous on quantity not quality of graduates and the advent of the delightful criteria-based assessment has made it nigh on impossible to fail students. I regularly mark first and second year undergrad assignments and lab books and the wording used in the criteria forces me to pass students who cannot write English (like tz above), and who have no grasp of the scientific method. This in subjects where it is taught directly through philosophy of science components, etc as well. It’s appalling. If this is happening across the board and at all Universities in Australia, we should all be worried.

      When I was an undergrad a few years back now, that same level of illiteracy would certainly have been given a fail.

      Having said that, I’ve also reviewed a scientific paper that plagiarised one of my own papers. It got rejected. So at least that system works (sometimes).

    • Nigel says:

      03:57pm | 30/11/12

      @andye, so how should the sentence be put together mate? Or is that all you have?

    • John T says:

      06:52pm | 30/11/12

      They let you near students?!

    • acotrel says:

      06:01am | 30/11/12

      ‘The hostility towards NAPLAN is also a reflection of two depressing modern trends – our unease about robust and constructive criticism, and an absurd level of hysteria about the pressures young people face. ‘

      When I was at Melbourne High School, in the 50s, I experienced extreme anxiety during my matriculation exams.  It was mainly due to my own refusal to buckle down and study. I was still attending night classes at age 57, after completing two degrees.
      If you simply do the work, there is no stress. If you play around and lead a normal adolescent life, you will pay the price.  Except it seems that these days few are prepared to do the hard yards.  It doesn’t matter anyway, you can always by a qualification off the internet.

    • Don says:

      07:13am | 30/11/12

      That is true and then one day, life and your bad decisions catch up with you bigtime. Exam stress is nothing compared to failing in the real world and knowing that it was your fault or that you contributed to it. Maybe this should be pointed out to students that do this.

    • Sickemrex says:

      06:13am | 30/11/12

      “the swift capitulation of so many parents to their kids’ demands to attend the nonsense that is schoolies week, as if they have just endured some unparalleled ordeal, like going off war or something”

      It’s funny coz it’s true. How many of the schoolie party animals actually TRIED at school?

      I was quite surprised by the results of that teacher survey. I know quite a few teachers and their attitudes towards test are actually pretty positive. While they do say there’s an element in some schools of teaching to the test, and some skew by sending the non-achievers home, overall they give a reasonable indication of the progress of the child and of the school.

      I’m sure the attitude of the parents and the teachers have a huge effect on the stress level of the children involved.

      As a parent looking at suitable schools for 2015, I appreciate having something more than opinion and rumour to assist our decision.

    • Macca says:

      06:26am | 30/11/12

      The pressure placed on children during the HSC and other exams is entirely disproportionate to the actual consequences of potential failure.

      Universities (and Tafes for that matter) are a dime a dozen, and the world won’t end because you ended up doing Commerce at UWS instead of NSW. In fact, if you do really well, you can transfer, undoing whatever perceived atrocities you committed during your final schooling years.

      Employment, as scary a concept as that may be school leavers, is readily available. Opportunities are near endless.

      Compare this to the average working day, where incorrect decisions (misinterpreting a safety procedure, a poor investment, an audit oversight) can easily land you without a job in a matter of days.

      Interestingly, the exception to this are Teachers.

      Placing pressure on children may be as much a reflection of Teachers aversion to stress as the perceived evils if its placed on children.

    • acotrel says:

      07:58am | 30/11/12

      ‘Interestingly, the exception to this are Teachers.’

      The last people who should be giving career advice !  Their experience of normal workplaces is always a figment of their imaginations.

    • marley says:

      06:58am | 30/11/12

      If children are being stressed by an exam at year five level, then the obvious thing is to test more often.  Life is stressful, and learning to handle it is one of the great lessons parents and schools should be providing. Otherwise, you end up with a generation that can’t handle pressure. I’ve dealt with a few people like that, and to be honest, you don’t want them in a normal workplace.

    • acotrel says:

      07:53am | 30/11/12

      We have discussed negative reinforce ment pre viously.  More testing can be equated with punishment.  A better way is to motivate people to excel.  Competition is part of it, but if it is over emphasised, it can be destructive.  When I was in primary school, I was always ‘top of the grade’ and was bullied incessantly.  I learned to fight , but also to keep a low profile. You have to have a good reason to want t o learn.  Passing exams is not a good reason. As far as I am concerned, if teachers want to get authoritarian, they can stuff off !

    • marley says:

      08:36am | 30/11/12

      @acotrel - well, I’ll say one thing for you:  your approach to issues is remarkably consistent for being inconsistent.

      You go on at great length about the need for benchmarks and standards in the workplace:  well, what is testing but monitoring whether the standards, both for teaching and for learning, are being met?  Or do you have issues with quality control and just hope whatever you’re producing meets those standards?

      You go on about risk management.  What’s the risk of letting kids sail through school without sufficient testing to know whether they’re learning core skills and acquiring core knowledge?  What’s the downside of having someone graduate without actually being fully numerate and literate?

      You go on about positive reinforcement:  there’s nothing positive about letting kids believe they’ve achieved when you have no idea whether they have or haven’t.  That’s setting them up for a lifetime of disappointment and failure. That’s about as negative as one can get.

      And there’s nothing good that I can see in not being able to identify and address specific weaknesses your students or children might have.  If little Joey comes home with a bad report on reading, Mom and Dad know need to pitch in and work on it with him.  If he doesn’t get tested, they can sail on oblivious, assuming he’s at the level he should be.

      Testing is not punishment; it’s assessment.  It’s an entirely necessary part of the educational system.  It’s a process that, one way or another, most of us have to deal with throughout our working lives as well.  Learning to cope with assessment early is a very useful skill to have.

      And anyway, my point was, if kids are not able to deal with the stress of exams, then the solution is not to protect them from exams, but to expose them to exams, so that they become used to them and learn to deal with them.

    • Kassandra says:

      12:13pm | 30/11/12

      @ acotrel:
      I have pointed out to you before more than once that negative reinforcement is not the same thing as punishment. A reinforcer is anything that INCREASES the frequency of a behaviour, it is positive or negative depending upon whether it is introduced or withdrawn. Punishment (response cost) is an aversive experience designed to DECREASE the frequency of a behaviour. Do pay more attention in class please acotrel.

    • Mahhrat says:

      06:59am | 30/11/12

      I remember feeling sick about my exams too.  That’s just part of growing up, surely?

      I know I’m often an advocate for things that people assume to mean I’m against taking personal responsibility, but in this I think teachers should be paid more, have more authority, and have more responsibility as well. 

      I don’t think there are many more important jobs than the ones teachers do; they should be held to a higher standard, but paid and given power commensurate with that.

      NAPLAN is then the way we measure the teachers, as well as comparing students.  That said, it shouldn’t be the only way; success is more than just scholastic results. 

      I think a NAPLAN scheme is important, but it shouldn’t be the “only” thing.

    • scott says:

      09:23am | 30/11/12

      With regards to teachers pay, I 100% disagree.  They are already fairly remunerated.  A graduate teacher earns above the median salary and only works 3/4 of the year.

    • Al says:

      09:34am | 30/11/12

      Mahhrat - I remember feeling sick about my exams too.
      Me too, sick that I knew that I would have a large amount of time after finishing but wasn’t allowed to leave early so I could go and do assignments, or read etc. Just sick of the wasted time.
      Instead I had to take a little nap.

    • Mahhrat says:

      12:02pm | 30/11/12

      @Scott:  Good thing that’s not what I said.

      They should be paid more, given more accountability, responsibility and authority. 

      Their job is, to me, one of the most important in the country, yet our best teachers earn less than middle management in most places.

    • scott says:

      02:24pm | 30/11/12

      @ Mahrat

      I know what you said, and I understood that.  I guess I did not convey that well in my earlier post.  My point is that they are currently over paid. 

      You haven’t said what you mean by giving them “given more accountability, responsibility and authority”.  What responsibilities are we going to delegate them to them?  Giving them more authority to do what exactly?  Given more accountability?  Are you proposing that the principal should be well within their rights to sack a teacher of an underperforming class?

    • o_O says:

      07:02am | 30/11/12

      My problem with NAPLAN is not the pressure on the kids. Its with the amount of time and classes devoted to studying/reviewing for it, which means teaching new stuff is neglected. They spend weeks reviewing and practice testing, which is good in one way, as the info sinks in, but so many class hours are spent on the old stuff, that nothing new is taught.
      They lose weeks worth of teaching time ensuring the school gets a high mark. Then scramble to catch up on what they should have been teaching in that time.

    • Tubesteak says:

      07:10am | 30/11/12

      Children should be put into a competitive pressure-cooker environment. It will get them ready for real life

    • St. Michael says:

      04:47pm | 30/11/12

      What, in a government job, or pretty much any other job in a large institution where your performance is measured by other than objective yardsticks?

    • Mayday says:

      07:11am | 30/11/12

      The worst teacher at my son’s primary school was the union rep, said it all really.

    • Robin says:

      07:26am | 30/11/12

      I can’t see why there is such a fuss here.  As Macca pointed out, stress in normal working life is always there.  Make a mistake and you could very well be fired.  Stress is not neccesarily bad, IMHO, it can actually bring out the best.  Pampering kids is definitely not doing them any favours later on.  But then again, given I am now over 50 I am quite sure my opinion does not count any more.

    • John says:

      08:00am | 30/11/12

      If a kid was asked to spell misogynist on a test, and he wrote Tony Abbott, he wouldn’t get any marks for spelling, but he’d get 100% for comprehension.

    • chuck says:

      08:52am | 30/11/12

      Hell I had to sit for tests/exams starting in State school, progressing into the old tech system, then into the tertiary system.
      Oh the horror!!!!!!
      Looks like the PC brigade want to breed a society of androgynous wimps who within several generations will be whipped out by a “superior” or more aggressive culture.
      I like the idea of no tests at all. I too could be a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist now if I had my druthers!

    • Steve says:

      08:53am | 30/11/12

      “I am not setting out to rubbish the research, conducted by the University of Melbourne at the behest of the Whitlam Institute”.

      You should be setting out to rubbish the research, because most social research is very low standard. 

      It is almost always questionnaires or surveys, which are then filtered through whatever analytical prejudices will get it published or paid for.  The real trick to this process is the write-up, where all the inconvenient findings either get totally ignored or sidelined.  This becomes the basis for the Press Release….and so it goes.

    • iansand says:

      09:26am | 30/11/12

      NAPLAN tests are necessary and useful.  The emphasis now being placed on them, and the way the results are being used, is not useful.

    • Sha says:

      09:30am | 30/11/12

      I have an aspergers son in the mainstream public school system and NAPLAN is totally inappropriate for him.He doesn’t do it. I made this decision when they started preparing his class for NAPLAN in year 2! He was already stressed about it and he hadn’t even finished the year before it.I am not a teacher or a government employee involved in education but to my inexperienced eyes it looks like statistic gathering and school measuring.

    • bananabender56 says:

      09:52am | 30/11/12

      Like most things we are catering for the rule rather than the exception. NAPLAN may well benefit 99% of the students so should be done.

    • Meph says:

      02:20pm | 30/11/12


      Its not the fault of your son, but what you say is an indication that the message is being missed. Either in the delivery from the government or the school.

      As far as I can tell, NAPLAN isn’t a test that a child can “fail” as it’s intended to measure the ability of the child to absorb the knowledge, and the ability of the school to teach it.

      In essence, teachers should not be indicating that the test can be “passed” or “failed”, it should just be another activity they do periodically, with no special emphasis.

      If a specific child scores low, and (as in your son’s case) there is a medically diagnosed reason, then extra resources should be allocated to assist the teacher, your son and yourself to help him.

      If an entire class scores low, then perhaps the teacher requires retraining, or assistance in putting together better curriculum.

      If the entire school scores low on the tests, then some serious questions may need to be asked to get to the bottom of the problem.

      The point is, specific students shouldn’t be made to feel that the test is make or break, and the school shouldn’t be looking to punish underachievers who score low in the tests. That’s a little like adopting key performance indicators to measure the efficiency of your team of workers, and then using it as an excuse to fire people. Wrong tool for the wrong job.

    • Ludwig says:

      09:35am | 30/11/12

      “It has come to the attention of the authorities that school is placing some youngsters under so much pressure that it might be safer to abolish it entirely and replace it with a network of self-esteem centres where the kiddies are told that they’re all doing a great job with everything and should be really proud of themselves.”

      You just described a Rudolf Steiner school.

    • St. Michael says:

      04:51pm | 30/11/12

      And it ain’t far from a Montessori school, either.  There’s a reason the advertising line “There’s something about a Montessori kid” that inspires mirth among child psychologists.

    • Kassandra says:

      10:09am | 30/11/12

      Why does everyone seem to assume that the NAPLAN tests actually measure what they are supposed to measure, beyond someone’s ability to do NAPLAN tests? In other words, why does everyone seem to assume they are valid? I think the teachers have a legitimate doubt to raise on that score.

      In higher performing selective schools NAPLAN tests are a joke (literally), while in schools catering to disadvantaged and less academically oriented kids (and parents) it is yet another round of humiliation. It’s all very well for those on the upside of the curve, but 50% of kids will score below the average. These kids and their parents don’t need to be told they are not at the pointy end of the plane, they already know that, and this type of testing does no favours for the large number of schoolchildren with learning difficulties.

    • Sickemrex says:

      10:27am | 30/11/12

      There’s always going to be a performance bell curve on anything but what’s wrong with trying to lift everyone’s standard?

    • marley says:

      10:33am | 30/11/12

      @Kassandra - if NAPLAN tests don’t measure what they’re supposed to, then teachers should indeed make that argument. They shouldn’t base objections to it on the grounds that it’s “stressful” for the kids.

      And I have to say, when I was a kid I compared my test scores with the kids in my class and my school, not with some hypothetical kid in a selective school somewhere across town. . lf I did better than the kid sitting in front of me, that gave me a sense of achievement.

    • Kassandra says:

      10:49am | 30/11/12

      It’s not going to lift anything. The testing merely ranks children based on a very narrow arbitrary skill set which is not appropriate to many of the children being tested.

    • Justme says:

      10:45am | 30/11/12

      NAPLAN is a starting point not an end point. I would rather know if/where my kids are lagging behind so that they can be helped in that area. Similarly if the school as a whole is lagging in one area but not in others I would expect the school to address their curriculum in that area and bring it up to scratch.

      I am happy for my kids to do NAPLAN if it is used as a tool for improvement.

    • sha says:

      11:11am | 30/11/12


      I would like to know how it benefits the other 99%?.If NAPLAN is used by the Government to target those disadvantaged schools with poor NAPLAN results then its a winner.


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