Firstly, I will applaud Trevor Diogenes re. “NAPLAN tests and My School: one size doesn’t fit all” (yesterday, item 13) for finally making a serious contribution to public debate of education. The more the better.
However, he and most commentators miss a vital point in relation to the NAPLAN tests. These tests were actually designed as a diagnostic test for students. When used intelligently, they are a very useful tool for teachers and schools in guiding the development of teaching programs and remediating problems in relation to literacy and numeracy. However, as has been widely reported the NAPLAN assessments are not a good tool for comparing students or schools.
This is akin to working out where the ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ suburbs are by surveying the population’s heart rate and blood pressure which in turn would inevitably lead to the ‘Which Suburb is Right for You” stories in the tabloid media.
However, this will not lead to the demise of ‘apparently underperforming schools’. WA State schools have been posting this sort of data online for around ten years. The data including test results from NAPLAN and prior to this WALNA (on which NAPLAN appears to be based), various statistics in relation to year 12 students as well as qualitative descriptions (‘rich data’). This can be seen here. The reality of working in a ‘struggling’ school is that your work is dominated by more pressing issues.
The unions have reacted in a way that is akin to them believing that this will lead to the end of western civilization as we know it. It is almost inevitable that a media outlet will construct a table of schools and test scores. However, what the ‘My School’ not only puts all this test data in the public domain for all schools (not just the State schools as it currently occurs in WA) but it also puts up an index of socio-economic status called the ‘Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage. Politics aside, 40 years of research has consistently told us that these factors that are outside the school have a major impact on test scores.
It would be possible for the unions to construct their own ‘League Table’ showing the schools that are over- and under-performing when controlling for social and economic context. Having once conducted such an exercise, I would expect some surprising results if such a table was constructed. Apparently high profile schools in economically advantage communities could disappear into the pack. These would be the schools to look for if you were choosing a school for your child.
However, if taking a strategic view, all this ignores our most persistent problem. Every major international comparison between the Australian education system and the rest of the worlds has highlighted that even though we do well in general terms our greatest failing has been the education of our poorest people who generally are in isolated locations (i.e. the outback). Parental choice is next to non-existent and taking test data etc. and putting it online does nothing to improve their opportunities.
David Hardie is a former teacher, researcher and administrator in Western Australia with the Department of Education and the Curriculum Council. He is currently working on a book to explain statistics to people without using formulae.