NAPLAN fails the Torchwood test

18 May 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

In the BBC science fiction series Torchwood, children who have performed worst at school are handed over to alien invaders. In the recent season, The Children of Earth, the British government is forced to handover 10 per cent of the country’s children. How to choose the 10 per cent? They decide it should be the lowest achieving or the “easily forgotten” who should be the ones to go. And how are they identified? Through league tables, of course.

The Australian Education Union has now backed down from their planned boycott of the NAPLAN tests. Deputy Prime Minister and federal Education Minister Julia Gillard finally agreed to meet the union last week and has agreed to a “working party” of education professionals to offer “advice” on the publication of the data on the My School Website. The test will be administered this week without disruption. The threat of league tables will continue for another year.

I came across this series of Torchwood during the recent debate surrounding the use of league tables compiled from the results posted on the federal government’s MySchool website. MySchool has become the symbol of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ‘Education Revolution’.

Now I am not claiming that the Rudd government are blood-sucking aliens about to steal Australia’s children, but there were some themes in the series that rang eerily true.

In its current form, the MySchool website gives parents information that will allow them to shop around for the most ‘successful’ schools. Through information gathered via literacy and numeracy tests NAPLAN, schools can be ranked according to their scores.

The MySchool website is open to have its data misused, and for a narrow and simplistic view of a school’s performance to stigmatise both the school and its students into the future.

Schools are ranked on NAPLAN test results – and these alone. They are not ranked on the level of community involvement a school has. Or on how successful their art or music programs are. They are not ranked on how many of their teachers offer extra class time to help struggling students.

Critically, they are not ranked according to the amount of money their school receives – from governments, from the community, from parents, from other sources.

The NAPLAN tests were never intended to be a tool to rate a school’s whole performance. The tests were designed to rate individual students’ progress in literacy and numeracy at one particularly moment in time from an entire year of schooling.

In 1997 Sydney’s Daily Telegraph published a front page article entitled ‘The Class That Failed’. The headline was set above a picture of Mount Druitt High School’s Year 12 graduating class. The article referred to the results the students had received as ‘virtually useless’. The effects of this article on the students, school and parents was devastating. In the Torchwood narrative, it is these kids who would be the first to go.

The use of league tables is not new. Both Britain and the US have a similar system in place. In his article NAPLAN denies kids an education revolution, Kevin Donnelly, director of the conservative Educations Standards Institute, outlines clearly the failure of this model in New York and the UK. Once a supporter of league tables, Donnelly changed his mind after visiting NYC and seeing the destructive effect of league tables first hand.

Captain Harkness from Torchwood says: ‘If you harm one of us – you harm us all.’ League tables stigmatise students and schools, they influence the curriculum in aberrant ways, they import into education a culture of winning and losing used in the sports arena. If there are winners, so there are losers. And when a society is prepared to tolerate a culture of league tables in education, then the whole society is damaged.

Ally Forward is a journalism student at La Trobe University in Melbourne. This piece was first published in The National Times.