Barely a month after we concluded a major critical review of the annual Australian NAPLAN tests of children’s literary and numeracy, President Obama has written an open letter to American parents and teachers calling for a halt to the proliferation of similar surveys in America.
This short article provides a historical background and outlines the issues.
After World War 2, America emerged as a superpower, replacing a century of dominance by Great Britain – the empire upon which the sun never set. But America was in for a rude shock when it lost the first battle of the space race with Sputnik orbiting in 1957. America upped its space program and only 12 years later put men on the moon. It also developed a great paranoia which haunts it to this day.
It prompted America’s educational authorities to engage in a proliferation of numeracy and literacy tests that have disrupted school teaching programs for a long time. President Obama says in his open letter to parents and teachers: “I’ve heard from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students. I want to fix that.”
Please read what the President has to say, and listen to him on the audio-visual recording at the end of his letter! This is highly relevant in Australia too, because the anxiety about the quality of school teaching has spread here, triggered by surveys showing other countries like China, South Korea, and Finland and Estonia in Europe, doing “better” than Australia.
Before Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010, she headed the “super department” of education, employment and workplace relations and launched the $16 billion “Building the Education Revolution” program of which $14 billion was allocated to improve primary school halls, libraries and classrooms. The main purpose was to boost economic activity following the 2007-08 global financial crisis. But the mounting anxiety over Australia’s ability to compete internationally was behind the Gillard department's introduction of NAPLAN in 2008, emulating the American tests of children’s literacy and numeracy.
NAPLAN gives some valuable insights into the abilities of different groups of school students, especially those who identify relative excellence. This is the only useful reflection of the anxiety that governments have built up amongst schools and parents — but it could be unearthed in other ways.
It is essential to ensure that as many students as possible benefit from good education, for their own future and ultimately Australia’s global status.
NAPLAN is expensive and disruptive. The first change that logically comes to mind is make NAPLAN triennial, not annual. Little information will be lost. Probably this initial change can be replaced by a well-designed survey which would reduce and maybe even largely eliminate the current tensions.
The high cost of NAPLAN contrasts starkly with the starvation diet spooned out to other cultural activities in Australia, especially in the two most recent government budgets. This applies especially to projects initiated by small organisations and individual artists who are leading the most creative artistic moves by musicians and other Australian artists into future decades.
Increasing this funding would be a genuine way to ensure that Australia is not lagging behind internationally.
Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, 1 November 2015.