The system, not teachers, to blame for the stress of tests

On the 19th of June the Sydney Morning Herald published an article by Daniel Hurst: “Teachers blamed for stress of tests,” which shifted blame for the stress of NAPLAN to principals and teachers. But are teachers really to blame? Or is it yet another example of teacher-blaming and individuals without a background in education making big decisions and gross accusations about teachers and teaching?

NAPLAN nation-wide, standardised test of reading, writing, spelling and numeracy skills of years 3, 5, 7, and 9 students. When NAPLAN commenced in 2008 the Federal Government viewed the program as promoting equity in Australia, with the aim of iproving educational outcomes for all students in Australia. The reality of the situation however, is starkly different.

In 2012 Greg Thompson at Murdoch University published “The Effects of NAPLAN:” an investigation of the impact of NAPLAN on classroom environments and teaching. The study revealed a number of concerning findings. An astonishing 73% of teachers believed that NAPLAN did not improve the learning outcomes of students in their class. Moreover, teachers are forced to modify their curriculum to prepare students for NAPLAN and adopt less-engaging teacher-centred pedagogical practices, potentially having lasting affects on student motivation. The 6-month delay from testing to delivery of NAPLAN results certainly diminishes relevance of data.

Just 35% of the 1000 teachers surveyed percieved NAPLAN as improving whole-school coordination of literacy and numeracy. Trying to improve educational outcomes by placing more stress on all involved is a self-defeating strategy.

A Senate committee inquiry to examine the consequences of NAPLAN testing on teaching and learning recieved bipartisan support in May. The inquiry aims to address concerns over the narrowing of the curriculum, increased levels of student and staff stress, and prevalence of private coaching. Senator Penny Wright spoke of the intention that NAPLAN testing was ‘to provide important imformation on student performance and highlight students most in need of help,’ but it was time to ‘re-evaluate the test to make sure it’s doing what it’s supposed to.’

Anecdotally there has been a plethora of evidence to suggest that NAPLAN is failing to meet his goals. Senator Wright said she has been overwhelmed with complaints from parents and teachers who have concerned over the program. The media, in part is due to blame. Vitamin company Nature’s Way sparked outrage for marketing Fish Oil tablets with the line “NAPLAN testing starts May 14.” This year over 180,000 NAPLAN-related books have been sold and book stores are donating ever-increasing floor space to NAPLAN-related titles. One could be forgiven for thinking NAPLAN is the HSC for 8-year-olds due to the way it is presented in the media.

Hurst’s article blamed teachers and principals for increasing students’ anxiety, due to the perception that NAPLAN is a ‘high-stakes test.’ ACARA is quoted as saying it is ‘up to the professional judgement of teachers” to avoid excessive drilling of students in test preparation, and considers that the positives outcomes associated with NAPLAN far outweigh the negatives. However, there is little evidence to suggest teachers welcome the antiquated methods required to teach to the test. Rather, teachers are bowing to widespread pressure for their students to achieve the best results possible.

The issue with NAPLAN is not the test itself. The issue with NAPLAN is how the data is used. There are benefits to being able to employing a standardised test to track progress from year 3 to year 9. However, results should be private, and for the benefit of individual students. Former Education Minister Peter Garrett’s position is “the MySchool website has provided transparency to parents and the community on how our schools are progressing.” Data should not be publicly available via the MySchool website. Results should NOT be used to categorise students. To shame schools and parents. To enable major newspapers to publish league tables.

Any stress or anxiety suffered by students is the result of a multitude of factors in a poorly functioning system. To isolate individual components of the system is to fail to understand it as a whole and to further compound stress in already stretched teachers.

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About madelinebevs

Mathematics teacher and researcher. Runner. I'm excited by mathematics education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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