Fighting for Equity in Education

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What NAPLAN Test Prep Has in Common With Trains Skipping Stations

Monday May 28, 2012

An interesting article was published in The Age last week about Metro Trains, the privately-owned operator of Melbourne’s suburban rail network. Apparently, Metro has resorted to skipping stations and running unscheduled short services in order to avoid being fined for trains running late.

Metro has a contract with the Victorian Government which includes a performance target for trains running on time. The company receives bonus payments for exceeding an 88% threshold percentage target for running on time and penalties for failing to meet the target. Last year it received $4.21 million in bonus payments, and $3.08 million in penalties.

Since a new timetable was introduced last month, train services have been changed without warning from stopping-all-stations to express, or terminated before the end of the line. It has happened at least four times a day on average and has resulted in many passengers being stranded.

So more trains run on time, but more passengers are stranded. In other words, Metro is meeting its performance target by reducing the quality of service.

It is a classic example of a well known phenomenon in social science research called Campbell’s Law. Campbell’s law states:

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.

When rewards and penalties are applied to a performance indicator service delivery becomes focused on meeting that indicator. Non-measured and difficult-to-measure aspects of the service are neglected and even ignored.

What does this have to do with education? Well, a similar thing is happening in education around the world as schools strive to meet performance targets set by governments. In fact, when Campbell’s law was first formulated, its author specifically applied it to education testing:

Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.

In Australia, schools are pressured to improve their NAPLAN results because this is how school performance is now measured and ranked. Their results are posted on the My School website and ranked in league tables published by newspapers. In the future, schools that make the biggest improvements in their NAPLAN results will also get financial rewards under the Gillard Government’s Reward for School Achievement program.

NAPLAN and My School put teachers and principals under pressure to get higher and higher test scores. As a result, schools focus for much of the year on test preparation. Weeks, even months, are devoted to preparing and practising for the NAPLAN tests in our classrooms. Many schools start practising the tests in the year before the Year levels tested.

The extra time spent on practising is at the expense of other areas of the curriculum such as science, history, languages, arts and music. These subjects get less time for much of first semester. Some are not even taught in some schools until NAPLAN is over.

Learning in the tested subjects of literacy and numeracy is also narrowed. The focus is on the easily testable aspects at the expense of deeper learning and understanding. More imaginative and creative aspects of these subjects which are not easily reducible to multiple-choice questions are neglected.

The whole nature of education is changing before our eyes under the pressure of NAPLAN and My School. The focus is on what can be measured. However, what can be measured in education is but a part of education. It means that creativity in teaching, fun and joy in learning, and simply trying out new things because they are interesting are all being lost, at least for a large part of the year.

Not only this, but some students also miss out as schools try to maximise their results and league table ranking. Many schools focus on students who are just below the minimum benchmarks and neglect the learning of very low or high achieving students. This is called teaching to the ‘bubble’; focusing on the group of students just below the performance benchmarks is commonplace in many schools.

Campbell’s Law shows why Metro Trains is skipping stations and schools are skipping parts of the curriculum. Both practices are a response to using one performance indicator to judge the quality of the respective services. It leads to reduced quality in both cases. NAPLAN and My School are not leading to better education – they are degrading education.

Trevor Cobbold

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