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The smell of NAPLAN in the morning

By Nicole Mockler - posted Wednesday, 4 May 2011


The beginning of Term Two heralds the start of NAPLAN season in Australian Schools. Like educational napalm, it can have the effect of killing off much of the actual learning that might otherwise be taking place around where it lands.

NAPLAN season is the time of year when those of us in Schools of Education around the country spend time debriefing and counselling eager fresh-faced teachers-to-be. They have returned to university from school visits traumatised by the experience of having seen eight year olds 'drilled'n'grilled' in preparation for their tests, often for great slabs of time everyday. It's the time of year when many teachers despair at where we are and how we got here and promise their students a return to something useful and interesting come the second Friday in May. That is if they're lucky enough to have that much control over what happens in their own classrooms.

There's a lot wrong with this picture, and unfortunately with our growing obsession with educational sorting, ranking and measuring, we've brought it upon ourselves.

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First, there's the fact that NAPLAN tests are diagnostic tools. They're an opportunity to provide data to teachers to help them better target their students' learning needs through highlighting the gaps in students' literacy and numeracy skills. I've said it before, but studying for a NAPLAN test is like studying for a urine test: pointless on a number of different levels. The most important being that in terms of the provision of real education for all kids in our schools, understanding where the gaps are is critical. Masking the gaps through a few weeks of well-placed 'drill-em-and-grill-em' does absolutely nothing to help.

If using a test designed to highlight the gaps in students' skills to sort and rank schools suddenly seems like madness that would be because it is. If we genuinely wanted NAPLAN to do the job for which it was designed, leading to improved literacy and numeracy for all children, we'd all get out of the way and allow the tests to expose, warts and all, where those gaps are.

Unfortunately, however, it seems that the gaps need to be masked at all costs because the stakes are now so high. NAPLAN now has less to do with highlighting educational need than it does with ranking schools and making those rankings public, thanks to the MySchool website. Schools can't afford to have the gaps unmasked because they're essentially being ranked and compared to each other on the basis of how well they cover them up or sweep them under the carpet. Until the advent of MySchool, NAPLAN and its state-based predecessors could remain stand alone snapshots of student skills that could be used to inform teachers and shape their teaching. The brave new world of MySchool has seen a wholesale reorientation of teaching and learning programs in many schools to maximise chances of NAPLAN success. This is to the detriment of opportunities for students to develop a breadth of understanding across the curriculum, as well as weeks of 'NAPLAN preparation' in the lead up to the tests.

So, happy NAPLAN season to you. Roll on May 13.

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About the Author

Dr Nicole Mockler is a lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research interests include teacher professional learning and identity and the politics of education, and she teaches in the areas of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice. Her published work includes Rethinking Educational Practice through Reflexive Inquiry (Springer, 2011), Teacher Professional Learning in an Age of Compliance: Mind the Gap (Springer, 2009) and Learning in the Middle Years: More Than a Transition (Cengage, 2007).

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