Why are teachers fighting tests that benefit kids?
THE Queensland Teachers' Union has declared war on the National Assessment Program known as NAPLAN. Their members will not co-operate with the forthcoming trial of NAPLAN online and their ultimate goal is to "cease" NAPLAN testing entirely.
NAPLAN is a test of numeracy and literacy. Here are two sample questions from the Year 3 examination:
1. Ben collected 68 cans. Jack collected 109 cans. How many cans did Ben and Jack collect altogether?
2. The following sentence has one word that is incorrect. We bought fresh bred. Write the correct spelling of the word.
Teachers have been asking children questions such as these since schools were invented. To answer them, a child must know how to read, add and spell. Everyone agrees that these are vital skills. NAPLAN just tells us whether children have learnt them.
Before NAPLAN, state education authorities administered similar examinations to ensure that schools were preparing children adequately for further learning.
Unfortunately, the curriculum, the assessment tests and the standards children were expected to achieve differed across teachers, schools and states. As a result, students participated in a postcode lottery - the content and quality of their education depended on where they lived and which school they attended.
The Australian Curriculum and NAPLAN have eliminated these inequities. For the first time, all Australian children are taught the same content, undertake identical assessments and are held to common performance standards.
The benefits have been enormous. Using NAPLAN, teachers can identify students' strengths and weaknesses and plan lessons accordingly.
In addition, because NAPLAN is administered in years 3, 5, 7, and 9, schools can see how their students' learning grows over time.
Moving NAPLAN online will make results available much earlier in the school year, but that is not the only benefit. In contrast to the present one-size-fits-all paper test, NAPLAN online will be tailored to the abilities of each student.
Teachers will receive a precise picture of each student's strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, moving NAPLAN online will allow the test to be customised for the special needs of students with disabilities.
With all these benefits, why does the QTU want to eliminate NAPLAN? The union lists many reasons. NAPLAN allegedly traumatises children, perverts classroom teaching and undermines education.
They claim NAPLAN-induced stress causes insomnia, stomach-aches and nail biting - and getting the answers wrong crushes students' self-esteem.
Teachers are forced to "waste" valuable class time teaching students to spell and do arithmetic when they could be focusing on more important things such as "creativity".
NAPLAN is also blamed for low levels of literacy and numeracy, and for not measuring creativity, critical thinking and 'personal attributes'.
These claims are all baseless.
Apart from anecdotes, there is no evidence that asking students how to spell "bread" makes them ill. It is also wrong to think that self-esteem is protected by not allowing children to fail. The truth is precisely the opposite. By protecting children from failure, we stop them from gaining the self-confidence that comes from overcoming it.
If children find NAPLAN stressful, imagine the stress they will encounter trying to find jobs if they leave school unable to read, spell and do arithmetic.
Claims that NAPLAN takes up valuable teaching time are also untrue. Over 10 years of schooling, NAPLAN testing occupies an average of three minutes per week. Surely this leaves enough time for teaching.
Teachers claim that they are forced to drill students on sample NAPLAN questions. It is not clear who is exerting this force, but drilling is not an effective teaching method. The only way to prepare students for NAPLAN is to teach them to read, write and do mathematics.
Finally, blaming NAPLAN for poor literacy and numeracy is like blaming your thermometer for your fever. NAPLAN is not responsible for the deplorable differences in performance between wealthy and disadvantaged students. NAPLAN's job is to expose the truth about those gaps.
And this is the real reason educators are so critical of NAPLAN - it exposes the truth. By identifying good and poor performers, NAPLAN holds teachers and principals accountable. Many find the spotlight uncomfortable, so they increasingly attack NAPLAN just as online delivery promises timelier and more useful tests.
It is time for parents, policymakers, and community leaders to enter the debate. For the sake of our students, we cannot afford to retreat.
Steven Schwartz is chairman of the Board of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. He is senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies.