School isn’t a competition but maybe we’re treating it like one

27 March 2018

Every year since 2010, around the beginning of March, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) publishes school level NAPLAN data on the MySchool website.
And around the beginning of March each year there is a bit of a flurry as commentators “analyse the data” to identify winners and losers and publish league tables even though the federal government was adamant that this wouldn’t happen when NAPLAN and MySchool were introduced.
The more I get to know Canberra school leaders and teachers the more I think our current approach to NAPLAN gets in the way of schools and teachers getting on with their job and educating children without an army of overnight experts looking over their shoulder. The fact that NAPLAN has also become a trigger for stress, anxiety and depression among young people fearful of letting someone down as opposed to a constructive tool for learning is in itself a reason to question the culture we have allowed to emerge. This high stakes culture may actually be doing more harm than good.
In relatively wealthy communities like Canberra it’s easy to forget the incredible power of a good education. Teachers change lives. Their work breaks down disadvantage and opens up life chances for children who wouldn’t otherwise get them. In communities like ours it can be easy to forget that there are people who confront deep disadvantage and marginalisation every day. Quality school education is the best chance to stop this disadvantage from trapping not only those who experience it but also their children and grandchildren.
The power of education is in how it helps people irrespective of their background and circumstances. Teachers take children as they come knowing that they start at very different levels of education and development. The problem with current reporting based on MySchool is that it ignores all of this and lines children and schools up like participants in a competition. It can also lead to behaviour that compounds disadvantage as people seek out supposedly “better” schools.
Over the past year as the ACT education minister, through the ACT’s Future of Education conversation, I’ve heard a growing number of people in our community – students, parents, teachers, principals and experts – voice similar concerns. And as I’ve watched my own children and their peers on their journey through school I’ve come to share these concerns.
I’ve heard parents say that they want their children ‘to be happy to go to school, inspired and positive about life, enjoying learning and willing to try new things and accept challenges.’ Schools have raised concern about the undue pressure and stress of the test, echoing that it’s more important for children to have ‘a love of learning’ and the ability to ‘engage as a successful member of the community’. Students themselves have reflected that they want their learning to be about more than a test or A to E grade.
Federal, state and territory governments are rightly obliged to demonstrate accountability for the vast amount of public money invested in school education. But the right performance measures at the right level of aggregation should be what is reported, so that governments are accountable for the right things. Teachers and individual schools should be accountable in ways that fairly reflect their level of control over their work and the resources they have to do it.
Performance measures should also be understood by anyone interpreting them and be appropriately used. This isn’t the case for NAPLAN and MySchool as the situation currently stands.
Of course parents need to have access to assessment data about their children so that they can support them through their learning and development. Individual students need this information too. But what if this was done in a way that supported a partnership between students, teachers and parents? What if instead of ranking and comparing individuals and schools, assessment data looked at each individual child to understand where they were doing well, and diagnose and support areas where their learning needs to grow?
Just like doctors working with patients, teachers are expert professionals highly skilled at working with their students to lead them through their learning journey. I’d like a system of school assessment that supports that.
I started my time as education minister setting out very clearly that the focus of the ACT Government is on equity in education. School isn’t a race were some students come first and some students come last. The whole system does better when we make sure school is providing the foundation that every person needs.
Students, their families and teachers rightly celebrate individual excellence at school. But the pursuit of collective achievement and the endeavour of every child’s learning journey are equally worth recognising. Every child has the potential for great things, which test results and grades are ill-equipped to recognise.
When we admit that some schools and students have started behind, noticing that some schools and students aren’t achieving to expected levels becomes more significant. It gives teachers, school leaders and system administrators cause to look a little closer, understand the context and work out how to best support, encourage and direct resources.
In December 2017 I initiated a review of NAPLAN reporting through the national ministerial council to assess whether the current approach is working against equitable learning and school improvement. The ACT is now leading this national piece of work and it’s great to have the support of other education ministers around Australia as we look at whether NAPLAN really is doing more harm than good and, if it is, plan a better way forward.