Publishing NAPLAN results is at best useless and at worst harmful

The national literacy and numeracy assessment tests, or NAPLAN, began in 2008. People barely noticed until 2010, when they became controversial through their connection to the Rudd government's concoction, the My School website, which promised to make students' results available publicly.

Readers may recall the Australian Education Union's role in that dispute: teachers were prepared to take dramatic collective action to avert the worst excesses of the standardised testing regimes we have seen do enormous damage abroad.

England and the United States are obsessed with mass standardised testing, while Finland wouldn't go near it with a barge pole. That says it all really, because England and the US perform worse than Australia in international sample tests, and Finland performs better. The Finns, of course, have worked out that it's better to fatten a pig than relentlessly weigh it.

Our union retains scepticism about the role of NAPLAN and My School. We continue to see third parties disregard supposed legal protections and try to profit through the crude and unfair ranking of schools. We still hear of schools (mostly private) using a student's NAPLAN results to deny enrolment. (They'd struggle to do that with my children, who have no NAPLAN results to speak of because they've always been withdrawn from the tests.)

Nationally, we have seen students receive awards and prizes based on their NAPLAN scores, which is not only grotesque but undermines the tests' purportedly diagnostic function. The practice of NAPLAN preparation in classrooms persists, though mercifully not in ACT public schools due to diligent union and Education Directorate leadership on this issue.

We can say though that, over the last five years or so, we have not seen the abominations that occurred overseas: schools punished, closed, "academised" (England) or "charterised" (US) based on their external test results; teachers' pay linked to students' test performance; and the ranking of teachers in newspapers, say, from one to 6000 (which predictably led to teacher suicide).


Technical changes made over time to the My School website have made it progressively harder to create simplistic "league tables" of Australian schools. Most media outlets gave up after a while, realising that it took an awful lot of resources, including staff time, to create something that parents were initially seduced by before ultimately realising it didn't tell them very much at all and they were better off visiting a school and talking to a teacher.

The high point for the AEU on this journey was this time 12 months ago, when The Canberra Times published its 2016 NAPLAN edition. The top few "high-gain" schools (with the highest gains made across a two-year period) were fussed over, which we can live with, even though these vary year to year and everyone will have their day in the sun. Further, the nuanced editorialising about the context for and limits of the tests was most welcome.

Compare it to editions from four or five years ago, which were, frankly, an unedifying orgy of simplistic competition, winners and losers, and demoralisation. "How your school rates" was the tag line, which Markus Mannheim's thoughtful 2017 analysis rightly contradicted. This year's print edition was again measured and inoffensive, making mention of the top few "high-gain" schools and engaging with the complexities of the issue.

But I stop short of giving The Canberra Times an "A" for its coverage. The paper let itself down with an online feature presenting the "gain" in each testing domain for every school in the ACT. All schools gained, as one would expect as children age, and some gained more than others.

So what? Does this tell us anything at all about the quality of teaching or programs at the school? No, it doesn't. Sample size could easily affect the extent of the gain, as could the fact that some schools did so well in 2014 that there was only so much gain they could make in 2016.

If the exercise was merely pointless, that might be OK, but the idea of publishing the lowest-gain schools comes with risks. Aren't we just denigrating schools again by characterising them as the worst performers? Will schools come under fire from disgruntled parents who were once encouraged by Julia Gillard to front up to the school and have "robust conversations" with the principal and teachers? (And can we link that to recent studies showing verbal and physical abuse by parents against school staff is on the rise?)

The Finns have worked out that it's better to fatten a pig than relentlessly weigh it.

What might schools under pressure from this reporting be tempted to incorporate into their teaching timetables to get them off the bottom of the table? More test coaching and drilling?

Publishing NAPLAN results in this way is at best useless and at worst harmful. The union representing most of the ACT's educators respectfully requests that this feature be gracefully retired.

Glenn Fowler is a teacher and secretary of the Australian Education Union's ACT branch.