NAPLAN tests, task corruption and teaching to the test

In another 2 or 3 weeks I begin my formal education as a high school teacher. In preparation for doing that I’ve joined various online groups and started listening to K-12 education related podcasts. A common refrain in the podcasts has been the problems associated with teaching to the test. Both US and Australian education commentators have been pointing out that a major consequence of broad-scale, standardised testing – such as the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests in Australia – is teaching to the test. i.e. the education of students suffers because anything that doesn’t contribute to the attainment of “good” test scores is ignored and other potentially harmful practices are adopted. For example, This article from the Australian context draws heavily on a Diane Ravitch article in the Wall Street Journal.

Not exactly news, but today I’ve come seen evidence of this first hand. An experienced high school teacher – someone I’ve actually known for sometime and have a lot of respect for – has posted to a national mailing list a message that goes something like this

Just back from a meeting with the principal. He’s been told by his boss that the most important task for the next 14 weeks is to improve NAPLAN results. We’re planning to do the normal things such as revision and practice; using intervention X and we’re thinking about direct intervention. Any recommendations.

In this case, direct intervention is taking kids that aren’t likely to do so well from other classes so that they can specifically work on the areas in which they need help.

This doesn’t surprise me. I knew that the secondary education system would have just as many problems as higher education, if not more. That is would have many examples of task corruption. But this is a bit of evidence that strikes very close to home and reinforces just how broken aspects of this system are.

It also reinforces the problem facing teachers within the system. There have been two responses so far, both offering suggestions on how to improve results. Nothing yet about the perceived negative implications of such practices. These people have to get on within the system. It also reveals something else about the teachers. The original email message was sent out by the mailing list at 10:30pm. The two responses so far we’re sent out at 11pm and 11:30pm.

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