My niece starts year 3 this year. She is a bright, happy and intelligent young girl who absolutely loves going to school and loves to learn. She is inquisitive and has a curious mind. She asks a lot of questions, as 7 year old children do. It helps them make sense of the world. You could imagine my surprise when after her first day of school, she asked me whether the high school girls could learn art and music before the Naplan tests? I must admit I was really surprised by the question. She has never asked me about a test before! I answered by telling her about how students study a range of subjects. She paused and then said to me, well we can’t because we have to learn for Naplan tests. My niece hadn’t really concerned herself about Naplan before. She had heard about it, but I had reassured her that she wouldn’t have to worry about it. It was a test she did on one day of the year. She was to do her best, but not let it worry her. Never could I conceive a primary school teacher telling students that they wouldn’t be studying art and music until after the Naplan tests. Has someone told this teacher that Naplan is in May? It concerns me that the message that students and parents come away with, is that the stakes riding on the outcomes of the Naplan tests for schools are high. The hidden message is that students must perform really well, to ensure that the school ranks well and is above average in each of the key areas. After all, the better the results the more interest in the school from prospective parents.
Sadly this is not an isolated incident. I remember a couple of years ago, working with a colleague who had two children in primary school. One in year three and one in year five. Both of her children were drilled in spelling and persuasive text types for days on end, before the tests. Her youngest daughter was so sick of it, she said she wasn’t going to do the test, because she now hated learning and hated school. She was a bright and inquisitive girl who had just become so sick of the pressure placed upon her. Homework, every night for about three weeks was spelling words and definitions. The teacher bribed the students with promises of really fun and exciting learning opportunities after Naplan. I’ve been approached by so many friends who have primary school aged children who want me to tutor their children before the Naplan tests.
When did Naplan lose its way? I would argue that when MySchools was used to reveal this data and no other data, that it’s when schools became focussed on the test. Initially it was supposed to be diagnostic, to allow parents, teachers and students understand where strengths and weaknesses existed in Numeracy and Literacy. The idea that they would be tested in four school years – 3, 5, 7 and 9, would provide richer data and reveal areas of growth. There is nothing wrong with testing students for knowledge and skill development. The problem with this test is that while it’s supposed to be diagnostic, it’s being used as a marketing tool among schools, to attract enrolments. Publishing the results within this context is one of the biggest mistakes ever made. I know of high schools who have also adopted a similar model where they focus specifically on teaching to the test. The test can no longer be seen as diagnostic, particularly when the cramming that takes place before the tests is out of context.
My sister has made an appointment to see the teacher about the comments. I have armed her with information about Naplan and the diagnostic nature of the test so she knows the questions to ask of the teacher.
Aside from the ethical issues, I think it’s really sad that children so young are already filled with the idea that art and music aren’t as important as a test that isn’t directly related to what they are doing in the classroom at the time the test is taken. The focus and emphasis placed on external tests like Naplan misplaces the value of assessment. Assessment can be meaningful. It can be diagnostic and can provide parents, students and teachers with rich knowledge of a child’s progress, strengths and weaknesses. Good assessment should challenge students and should not rely on rote learning. In some ways, the minor changes to Naplan – essentially not telling schools whether the writing task will be persuasive or a narrative text, in some ways prevents learning a text type for the test.
I’ve never been a fan of teaching to the test. It’s an almost guaranteed way to discourage thinking, questioning and deep learning in the classroom. It is a guaranteed way to encouraged dependence and laziness. Why think about the answer if you know the teacher will just tell you? Why bother thinking because the teacher will give the right answer. Rest assured that literacy and numeracy skills are embedded in the activities completed in my classroom. They are taught within the context of each unit of work. They are also assessed accordingly. A teacher worth their salt should be able to speak confidently and freely about how a student is progressing in their class. If the work completed in class does not provide a picture of a student’s performance in that subject, then there are issues for concern. Naplan does not replace good assessment in the classroom. Naplan, when completed as it is intended, should complement the work completed in the classroom and suggest possible areas for improvement. So much time and money has been invested in creating a great website to access the Naplan data, complete with growth charts, answers and suggested activities to support teachers in helping their students develop and improve skills and knowledge. This data is only as accurate as the way that students go into the test. Of course students have the right to know the structure of the test. I think they should be given experience of the kind of questions they can be asked, so they are prepared for the way in which the questions are worded. Where I draw the line is withdrawing some elements of the curriculum so students can solely focus on practising past questions and then not following up after the test. Another problem with the diagnostic test is that the results come far too late in the year, to really effect any change. I would like to see the results shared earlier, so opportunities to address areas of weakness, highlighted in the testing can be planned and implemented.
My niece did come home from school today, excited that she will be learning Italian this year. Apparently they will be having these lessons from the start of the year. No news yet on whether art and music classes will be a focus in term one.