Illustration: Cathy Wilcox
A social media outcry last week forced the withdrawal of a television ad linking a children's fish-extract supplement to success in the NAPLAN tests.
TV ads for Nature's Way Kids Smart Omega-3 Fish Oil supplements reminded parents that ''NAPLAN testing starts May 14''. The commercial was met with a howl of protest on Facebook and Twitter. Education and health experts called the ad ''unethical'' and ''opportunistic'' and parents called it a ''ploy that advertises to people's fears''. It was quickly withdrawn.
The incident reveals just how important NAPLAN tests have become in schools. A whole industry is being built around the tests that plays on parent fears and aspirations and the pressure on schools to improve results. Schools practise NAPLAN tests for much of first semester and parents are encouraged to practise at home with their children. NAPLAN test booklets are big sellers - even supermarkets stock them. Some publishers cannot keep up with demand.
Many parents have their children tutored for NAPLAN. Just Google ''NAPLAN tutors'' and you get 80,000 results. NAPLAN workshops, including for year 3 children, were widespread during first-term holidays. Some schools and teachers refer children to private tutoring centres.
None of this was happening before My School. Standardised tests have been in place in some states for 20 years and national tests since 1999. They were a low-stakes exercise that provided additional information to parents and schools. NAPLAN is now ''high stakes'' because school results are published on the My School website and as school league tables in newspapers. School reputations now depend on NAPLAN results, as do the reputations and careers of principals and teachers.
Money now hinges on NAPLAN results as well. The federal government gives reward payments to state/territory governments for improving their NAPLAN results. Federal bonuses are to be paid to schools and teachers for improving NAPLAN results. The Victorian and Queensland governments want to introduce performance pay for teachers based in part on NAPLAN results.
Great harm is being done as a result of this ''high stakes'' role of NAPLAN. Parents are being conned into paying hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to get their children tutored for NAPLAN just so schools can say they are above the national average or better than the school down the road. Many parents seem intent on following the east Asian ''tiger mother'' syndrome of hours of homework and tutoring in the pursuit of education success, even at the risk of the physical and mental health of their children. One only has to look at the epidemic of myopia and high levels of stress among children in east Asian countries to see the consequences.
Many children in Australia are experiencing high levels of stress as a result of the prominence given to NAPLAN in schools. A University of Melbourne survey last year found that many parents were raising concerns about the impact of the tests on their children's wellbeing. Nearly 70 per cent of teachers in the survey said they had heard from individual parents about stressed children, particularly in primary school. It has been reported that NAPLAN testing is one of the causes of an increase in childhood anxiety observed by community counsellors.
Gains in NAPLAN results in some schools in some year levels and domains may be artificial. They may simply be the result of extensive test practice in schools and private tutoring centres. They also seem to come at the expense of breadth and depth in learning. There is evidence that the curriculum is being narrowed to allow more time for test preparation, that there is more teaching to the test, and more drilling and rote learning.
In a survey of teachers by the University of Melbourne last year 75 per cent of teachers said they now taught to the test and 70 per cent said less time was spent on other subjects in schools. About 55 per cent said that the focus on NAPLAN had narrowed the range of teaching strategies they used. About 55 per cent of primary teachers said they practised tests at least once a week for five months before the tests - 10 per cent practised daily for the whole five months. About 35 per cent of secondary teachers said they practised tests at least once a week for the five months.
A separate survey by Murdoch University also found that NAPLAN had led to a narrowing of the curriculum, teaching to the test, and a classroom environment that reduced student engagement. In this survey, 77 per cent of teachers reported that preparation for NAPLAN tests was taking time away from teaching of other subjects and 55 per cent said they felt forced to give dull, repetitive lessons.
Although these surveys were limited in scope and the respondents self-selected, they confirm extensive anecdotal evidence of the impact of NAPLAN and My School. They are also consistent with the experience of test-based accountability in Britain and the US. So, there is something ''fishy'' about NAPLAN and My School. They were promoted as the way to improve student results, but the gains may be artificial and compromise a balanced education and lifestyle for children.
Last year, consumer group Choice gave its Shonky award to another Nature's Way Kids Smart product - its Natural Medicine range for children. Perhaps NAPLAN and My School could share this year's Shonky!
- Trevor Cobbold is national convener of Save Our Schools: saveourschools.com.au.