August is when the NAPLAN test results come out to schools and parents. It isn’t as exciting as the annual release of year 12 results, but it is developing a life of its own. We are bombarded with media releases, claims and counter claims about schools and results. Cheer squads or jeer squads form up, the occasional moral panic revived, along with the usual exhortations to do better next year.

NAPLAN test scores have mostly drifted up over the years. This year’s news/panic is about the plateauing of these literacy and numeracy results. In the words of ACARA, “plateauing results are not what we should expect or assume from our education systems”.

Well, yes … and no. Sure, test scores in literacy and numeracy have apparently plateaued. We can’t say that about the rest of our “education system” because it doesn’t lend itself to tick-and-flick NAPLAN-Style testing.

But what a let-down. By most accounts schools are well into literacy and numeracy. They scramble to prepare kids for the tests, often putting aside non-testable stuff like history, art, music and the like, and these kids repay us by … plateauing?

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And in the process the little flat-liners have allowed Federal Minister Simon Birmingham to rush in where angels fear to tread. In a told-you-so moment he says it once again shows that money doesn’t lead to improved results. It’s a brave call to link plateaued or poor NAPLAN scores in just 12 months to money matters, but he’s now done it twice this year, last time to a chorus of groans from educators and statisticians.

Simon Birmingham’s mantra about money and results might help him backpedal out of Gonski, but it doesn’t reflect the evidence. NSW is showing that properly targeted and sustained investment in disadvantaged schools pays off.

The minister’s real problem is one he won’t face. Yes, his government does spend up on schools, but the shambolic combination of state and federal funding means that not enough money is going to where it will make a difference. Far too much goes to students already achieving at high levels.

Gonski proposed a schools’ resourcing body to set the purpose and direction of all public funding so that it goes to where it is needed. This solution was thrown into the too-hard basket. The mismatch between funding and achievement is one consequence.

So what about the plateaued results? The reality is that they are almost certainly a product of our unique approach to schooling. A couple of decades ago England went down this high-stakes, test-driven path. The low-performing schools were beaten up (a bit of an art form in Blighty), everyone then focused on the tests, scores improved … and eventually plateaued. Kids and schools learned how to play the game, almost certainly at the expense of engagement in broader learning for the long term.

Meanwhile schools and teachers were blamed to the point where there was a serious decline in participation and commitment — and that was just from the teachers. Even today morale in English schools is not good. All the ingredients now exist for a replay of this in Australia.

Schools can always improve, but our current test regime will have little to do with it. Viewed in isolation the tests are well-constructed and do tell a limited story about individual student progress. But that’s as far as it will ever go. High-stakes standardised tests don’t improve schools. It was always a nonsense to believe otherwise. Meanwhile the level of student anxiety, stress and disengagement from school is on the rise.

A second problem lies in what we conclude from the tests — and what we ignore. The annual NAPLAN results festival is built around shifting scores and the rise and fall of various states and eventually (when My School reports next year) schools. But trends in NAPLAN scores tell a much bigger story, one that is less palatable but more urgent.

As we showed a couple of months ago, a significant and very Australian problem is the growing achievement gap between those schools that increasingly enrol the strugglers and those that enrol the more advantaged. The results in the advantaged schools edge up a bit every year while the results of the strugglers head downwards. We won’t lift our overall achievement in NAPLAN or anything else until we lift the strugglers. And we won’t lift the strugglers until we properly target their schools and stop over-investing in schools that are already well-resourced.

Sadly, little will change until we reach crisis point. Maybe reaching a plateau is the beginning. Funny thing about plateaus: they go up, then level off. But at the other end is a long downward slope.

* Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd are joint authors of Uneven Playing Field – the state of Australia’s schools, published by the Centre for Policy Development.  

This article was originally published at John Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations