This talk was presented on 17 September 2018 at a Brisbane community forum on NAPLAN, hosted by the Queensland Greens and The Cloudland Collective. The forum was chaired by Michael Berkman MP, Greens member for Maiwar. The other panelists were parent and teacher Janine Rees, and Dr Katie Weir, an education expert from Griffith University. The event marked the launch of the Scrap NAPLAN community group and its website, https://scrapnaplan.weebly.com/.
Many defenders of NAPLAN will concede that the test has some serious flaws. They might acknowledge that it causes stress amongst students, that it has practically put an end to play-based programs in prep and year 1, that it promotes damaging competition between schools, and that it allows for grossly unjust evaluations to be made about teachers and school communities. All of this might be true, so the argument goes, but there’s a lot of good that can be salvaged. What we need to do, they say, is return to the original purpose of NAPLAN, which was to gather diagnostic data that could guide schools to help students who are struggling.
If we go back and look at the origins of NAPLAN and high stakes mass standardised testing, however, it becomes clear that NAPLAN was never about helping students. The real story begins in New York City.
In the early 2000s in New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein set about restructuring New York City’s education system. They took aim at the teachers’ unions, implemented merit-based pay, opened charter schools and ignited an obsession with standardised test results. There was an abrupt shift away from the idea that the local school could provide a solid education for all kids in the neighbourhood. Instead, families were to supposed to exercise choice. Selecting the school with the highest test scores for your child was presented as a fundamental right. It sounded like a liberating moment but what the concept of choice actually signalled was a declaration of war on the local public school and a relentless drive to privatise the public education system. Schools that were not closed were targeted to become charter schools led by school boards loaded with business figures.
It is interesting to reflect on the background of Bloomberg and Klein. Bloomberg was a businessman determined to introduce a range of managerial and neoliberal practices into the running of the city schools. Merit-based pay and corporate accountability were borrowed directly from business. Bloomberg charged Joel Klein with the task of installing these neoliberal business practices into the education system. Klein was Attorney General under the Clinton administration. He reached out to private consultants such as a former banker with Goldman Sachs to lead the reform process. Relying on private consultants became a hallmark of his leadership. They would give advice and prescriptions to mathematics coaches to roll out and monitor new programs. Neoliberalism was to structure both school finances and classroom practices.
In the space of two years Joel Klein had closed nearly 24 of the largest high schools in the city and opened up hundreds of smaller ones with financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and the Open Society Institute. So a student starting out in the academic year in September might have 100 high schools in a borough or district to choose from. Each school seemed to be about preparing kids for a particular industry. There was a school for firefighters, for the hospitality industry, for architecture, for sport, for violin, for health and so on. When it was clear that a big school was about to be shut down there was always a group of troublesome kids with poor results who had nowhere to go. Many would eventually find themselves at a new school. The reputation of that school will start to plummet as news of the arrival of the troublesome kids started to spread. Public education advocate Diane Ravitch said that there began a ‘deathwatch for the receiving school’.
The measures featured highly centralised top-down control. Many teachers resented the intrusive micromanagement in the classroom. The centralisation of decision making about curriculum was also accompanied by a seemingly incongruous call for schools to be autonomous. Once again, the language of liberation – who would say that autonomy is a bad thing – conceals an autocratic process, the cornerstone of which is an accountability regime. New positions were created to deliver accountability – the chief accountability officer, the chief knowledge officer, the chief talent officer, and the senior achievement officer. And most of these people did not have a teaching background. Huge contracts were given to companies that specialised in test preparation because at the core of Klein’s reforms were the test scores in reading and mathematics, the forerunner of our NAPLAN. These test results would drive everything and would give the system accountability. Parents and politicians, it was said, would know exactly how well the education system was functioning. Immediately, science, history, civics, the arts and physical education began to suffer.
As funding cuts and the devastating judgement about the quality of schools based on test scores started to take their toll, charter schools emerged as the saviour. A particularly noxious propaganda film called Waiting for Superman presented charter schools as the only real educational option for poor communities.
Worryingly for the reformers, however, many poor students were not exercising the choice being given to them. It smacked of ingratitude. In California less than one per cent of eligible students in failing schools opted to transfer; in Colorado less than two per cent; in Miami five per cent. In New Jersey almost no eligible students transferred. And the reason? Parents rejected the free transportation to a supposedly better school because they wanted their kids to go to the neighbourhood school in an environment that was familiar to them. No doubt they also thought that a single test result didn’t represent the real quality of a school. They were articulating a perfectly reasonable expectation – the local school should be a wonderful school, it’s near where their kids lived, it should be brilliantly resourced and committed teachers should work there.
Test scores became the sole measure of a school’s quality and schools understandably invested in test preparation materials. Mind numbing drilling, based on the tests from previous years, became significant features of the school day. Then there was corruption. Newspapers raged against teachers who informed students about details of the test prior to the test while the absurd and stressful character of the test escaped scrutiny. A number of schools excluded students with learning disabilities or directed them not to come to school on test day. The most common form of gaming the new system was simply to focus obsessively on test preparation. Students became experts at spotting the distractors in multiple choice but learned very little about the subject. A trend emerged of some schools doing incredibly well at the test but failing to teach more sophisticated analytical skills. Diane Ravitch writes that ‘excessive test preparation distorts the very purpose of tests, which is to assess learning and knowledge, not just produce higher test scores.’
Learning occurs when students are engaged. The point of engagement for a student will often be a particular subject such as music or physical education or history. That subject makes them want to go to school, do some homework, complete assessment. They tolerate other subjects, maybe thoroughly detest one or two, but the connection they have with music or dance makes school meaningful. Standardised mass testing casually sidesteps the essential need for students to like being at school in order for genuine learning to occur.
The broader education debate at the time of the Klein experiment was not grounded in serious research or theory about how a young person learns. The New York changes took place in the context of George Bush’s education policy, No Child Left Behind, a policy that was entirely punitive. The narrative was that if test scores were low it was because teachers were lazy, principals were gutless and these people need to be threatened with the sack or school closure. The education debate was reduced to a very simple idea that good education is all about improving results on standardised tests and improvement can be driven by fear.
Teachers became afraid that results at the end of a year would not indicate ‘value-addedness’ – the most recent results should clearly be an improvement on what the child achieved in the previous test. It was as if the reformers, many of whom had a corporate background, were frustrated that schools didn’t produce a tangible commodity like a car or a headache tablet, and the concept of ‘value addedness’ gave them something familiar to apply. It looked like the growth of capital or the growth of profits. It makes about as much sense as evaluating the quality of patient care in a hospital by referring to duration of bed occupation. The more frequent the patient turnaround, the better the hospital ward. Clearly.
Underlying the focus on ‘value addedness’ is a new assumption about the key factor in a child’s education: teacher effectiveness. In reality, this is one factor amongst a number of important other factors. If we wanted to improve the quality of learning in a school we could legitimately call for more funding, for a reduction in class sizes, for a breakfast program, for an increase in the number of counsellors and nurses in schools. The truly visionary may argue that to improve the quality of education we had to massively reduce inequality across society. But the high priests of school reform won’t allow for postcode or indeed child poverty to be a part of the discussion. Better to wave a disappointed finger at teachers in professional development seminars, bash them in the media and cajole them to try to compensate for immense differences in cultural capital and opportunity created over decades. Failing students are taught that the single test result defines them, that whatever miserable future they have is shaped by their academic deficiencies.
Thousands of parents in many parts of the US have decided enough is enough. A community based opt out movement has emerged that threatens the high stakes standardised testing regime. The New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) held 40 opt out forums across New York State in one month in 2015. Today in New York State the opt-out rate is 20 per cent. If it gets much higher the test results will be worthless and that’s a very good thing.
For most Australian teachers, parents and students, the New York story is a familiar one. A crisis in education is manufactured to create the impression that government schools are failing. This happened under the Howard government when David Kemp declared that literacy rates were in freefall. Parents were encouraged to distrust the quality of their local government school. They needed to exercise choice. Choice had to be based on something simple and measurable like NAPLAN results. Schools and teachers were now accountable. The Murdoch media interpreted the results for us, thoroughly distorting the quality of schools, especially state schools. To maintain their profile in the community, on terms framed by Newscorp editors and neo-liberal education bureaucrats, schools taught to the test; time was taken from the arts, sport and humanities to teach a certain kind of written narrative or an approach to maths problems. Students in prep now spend less time playing.
The New York education reforms should not have been imported here. We could have borrowed ideas from places that cherished public education such as Finland. Even though the consequence of Joel Klein’s reforms were becoming obvious in the US, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Education Minister Julia Gillard, back in 2008, were determined to bring large parts of Klein’s new education model to Australia. They were impressed by the idea of corporate accountability in schools and the idea of being able to determine the quality of a school and its teachers by referring to a number that could be published on a website. Rudd hinted ominously that failure to make results publically available could jeopardise future funding. Rudd got his way and My School became a new, dynamic part of the education landscape on 28 January 2010. The site, containing results from 10,000 schools, received nine million visits on day one. If a school wasn’t producing the right numbers then Prime Minister Rudd encouraged parents to vote with their feet.
You could have predicted what would happen next. There were warning signs from Britain. Wealthy parents identified the schools with the best test results and rushed into the area, driving up house prices. A straightforward-looking education reform – publish results of a pointless test – contributed to worsening inequality in Britain. If you looked closely at changing real estate values in particular school catchments in Brisbane it’s obvious that the same process is happening here.
Joel Klein was invited to Australia by the Rudd government and during an interview with the ABC said that he would prescribe school closures as an important part of school reform in Australia. He boasted, ‘That’s what I’ve done. I’ve shut down 70 schools.’ This approach impressed Education Minister Julia Gillard who celebrated the ‘remarkable outcomes’ that Joel Klein had achieved in New York. In 2010 Klein declared that probationary teachers would have to demonstrate steady improvement of the students’ test results over time before they were given tenured positions. When questioned about this proposal Gillard said ‘we obviously take an interest in developments overseas and strongly support transparency in schools.’ Once the test is in place, it exists as the mechanism to unfairly rank teachers and students.
People should give up searching for the benign, diagnostic heart of NAPLAN. It’s not there, it never was and teachers know this. A survey of Queensland Teachers Union members conducted earlier this year is a damning statement about NAPLAN. As the report summarised:
‘QTU members saw little evidence that NAPLAN assisted teacher practice or student learning. More than half the respondents said NAPLAN data was useless or barely useful in informing teaching practice; two thirds said students experience at school would be improved if NAPLAN ceased, as would their own job satisfaction. More than 90% said that the My School website was not useful to them as educational professionals.’
In the US, the neoliberal reforms of education have dramatically intensified work in schools. The tests have also served to take attention away from general issues within the education system and the social context a student learns within. The test results create the impression that a student’s future is in entirely in their own hands, and that if they fail they and their teachers are responsible. This is a powerful form of ideological control both in the US and here.
Now we are seeing the resistance. And it’s more powerful than anyone expected. Parents have formed highly effective opt-out movements in different states. Parents send students to school with a letter insisting that their child do meaningful educational activities that day, not the test. School communities are discussing the best form of diagnostic testing, something that can illuminate and not punish.
Neoliberalism has so degraded public education in the US that it has provoked classroom teachers to take unprecedented strike action to reverse the damage. In the first part of 2018 teacher strikes erupted across the United States. The historic West Virginia strike set the tone. West Virginian teachers didn’t simply campaign for their own wage rise but an increase for all public sector employees in that state. Striking teachers are battling to make society more equal and secure more resources for schools. Teacher union activists held their collective breath over the summer holidays, wondering if the strike wave would continue in the new academic year. It has. Ballot after ballot has supported more industrial action. These are not votes for symbolic stoppages, mere political gestures, these are undertakings to strike and win.
We need a campaign to end NAPLAN. Let’s hope the demand for useful assessment becomes part of a much larger campaign to reclaim schools from corporate accountability and the ideology of choice. Let’s be inspired by US classroom teachers, not US education bureaucrats. The objective of our campaign should be ensuring that the local school is a wonderful school.
Ravich, Diane (2010), The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010)