Begun in 2008, it's unlikely that I'll regularly make entries to this blog, so do check my main site at www.fourhares.com

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NAPLAN – or the demise of pedagogical principles


As you may be aware, next week is when Australian schools are under obligation to provide standardised tests to students in classes (or years) 3, 5, 7 and 9 who have not been withdrawn from participation by their parents (or by their school in very special circumstances in which this is permitted).

For those who may not have been so informed, any parent/guardian has the right to withdraw their child from participating in the national standardised tests without having to justify their decision. As of last year, these have been renamed ‘NAPLAN’ and replace the various but similar State-standardised tests (such as the ‘AIMS’ in Victoria) which were, in any case, as pedagogically unsound. This is due to take place over three consecutive mornings in lieu of whatever schools had determined was best educational practice.

Ever since standardised tests were first introduced, in order for the Federal government to mandate these to independent schools, they have been tied to funding agreements. In other words, irrespective as to whether or not these reflect the pedagogical and educational underpinnings or the philosophical foundations of a school, in order to receive Federal funding, the school must agree to provide these to every student not withdrawn. The reason to tie these to funding agreement is that education, by our constitution, remains a State prerogative. This ‘loophole’ used by both major parties (which has not been tested in courts) is deplorable yet, given that these National tests have now established themselves as a multi-million dollar industry, these would inevitably fight against any proposal to drop such ‘compulsory’ imposition in schools by any future Government.

When initially introduced, the funding agreement had a clause that allowed schools (and specifically, it turned out, Montessori and Steiner schools amongst but few others) to seek exemption from participation. The wording was very specific:

“Where a school has a longstanding, well documented publicly stated approach to education which may provide it with grounds for being exempted from participation in a standardised assessment programme, the school should make a case to the Commonwealth for consideration by the Commonwealth Minister.”

Under this clause, Steiner schools made submissions and as a consequence were exempted, the Government and DETYA recognising that standardised assessment programmes such as NAPLAN were of such a nature that provided sufficient ground for exemption.

The Federal Government followed this through, if I recall, in 2002, with deleting the clause that allowed any schools to seek exemption, at the same time reminding those same schools that parents may decide to withdraw their child(ren) from such participation, and that whether these children are in independent, catholic or state schools. Verbal communication with some people at Canberra indicated that in their view as parents have elected to send their children to a Steiner school, they would ‘of course’ support its pedagogical, educational and philosophical views and would thus withdraw their child(ren).

It should be mentioned that the main impulse for National Assessment Programmes comes not from educational considerations, but rather out of a means by which the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) may measure and compare narrow criteria across countries, thereby able to give the impression of educational details per country. The Australian participation is based on this, and the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which published what may be considered the foundation stone for NAPLAN development in 1999. Here, we begin to understand how the child is mere cog-in-the-machine to which may be expected certain achieved ‘benchmarks’, rather than a wholesome developing individual with varying propensities to developing a wealth of skills in non-standardised ways of learning and non-standardised time-frames.

I am confident that should all parents be aware of the nature of both Montessori or Steiner/Waldorf education and the nature of the standardised tests, withdrawal of each child would take place without the need to either discuss the nature of education and those tests. In fact, I would suggest that if parents in general were aware of educational principles and sound pedagogical practice, most students across the nation, whether in independent, Catholic or State schools, would be withdrawn.

There is, of course, a Catch-22 here: parents are generally NOT informed that they in fact have that choice, and teachers in many schools are discouraged (and in some cases I have heard even prohibited [?!??!!!] even if from their professional judgement!) from informing parents of that possibility – perhaps this may have something to do with principal salaries being tied, in some cases and in indirect manner, to NAPLAN outcomes! (this is a result, in Victorian State schools, of tying a portion of a principal’s pay to the school’s attainment of specified ‘performance targets’ as measured against standardised assessment outcomes). More recently, it has been noted in the media that various schools are actually preparing students for these tests, and other students are obtaining private preparatory tutoring or purchasing preparation programmes – of course such is necessary as these tests are of a style that does not generally form part of sound pedagogical practice and certainly of a style that is not used in most schools.

As the results of these tests are likely to be saved in some government-held database for each individual who participates, it is worth considering how such results may be raised in some unexpected and even unintended manner twenty or thirty years hence.

So, if a parent does not want their child to participate, what can be done? Simply ask for a withdrawal form… and if the school’s office is unable to locate one (even though it’s simply a matter of photocopying page 23 from the Naplan information booklet for schools), download one from either:

Vic. VCAA site: student withdrawal form; or by clicking the pdf image above!

…and hand it in to the school prior to the 12th May!

You may need to be clear and firm – it has been mentioned to me that pressure has been placed on parents to not withdraw their child. Simply, in that case, follow it up with a letter instructing the school that your child is NOT TO PARTICIPATE IN NAPLAN TESTS.

What’s already on the cards and forthcoming…

    NAPLAN   →   NAP-LAN + NAP-SL + NAP-CC + NAP-ICTL

Lest it be thought that I am scare-mongering, let’s have a look at some of the ‘complements’ to the NAP-LAN (Literacy And Numeracy): already implemented in schools on a ‘rolling’ basis are the NAP-SL [Scientific Literacy] for year 6; the NAP-CC [Civics and Citizenship] for years 6 and 10; and the NAP-ICTL [Information and Communication Technology Literacy] also for years 6 and 10. I would be surprised if the intent was to restrict these to samplar student populations, given the nature of both politicians and the thinking of bureaucrats who, by having an ‘interest’ in educational results, mistake that as an expertise in education.

It has been reported that in the UK, what started out as the equivalent of a simple standardised assessment programme in literacy and numeracy has degenerated into an array of over seventy standardised tests that a typical student will undertake in their schooling

…but of course, it can’t happen in Australia! After all, we’re not that idiotic about submitting our children to so many standardised tests that only mimic education!

How I hope that this is in fact the case, and that we wake up to what is occurring as those who are enamoured by such tests expand these across an array of fields in order to (improperly) respond to the (valid) criticism that the current tests only provides quantifiable results for a tiny fraction of education (as if increasing their range deepens an understanding of the education of the child).

    Educational support not provided to students in need

In terms of educational support for students in need, some States and Territories (including WA, I have been told of two others that I have not been able to verify) have already implemented tying educational support to participation in the NAPLAN tests.

In a Dec. 2008 Media Release from Julia Gillard’s office as Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (for of course, education forms part and parcel of employment considerations, rather than the Arts and Sciences), it was stated that:

At the COAG meeting on 29 November 2008 the Australian Government delivered an unprecedented National Education Agreement to drive education reform. [...][and that] $540 million to drive improvement in literacy and numeracy outcomes.

note the wording… NOT to support children who may need it in literacy and numeracy, but to ‘drive improvement in literacy and numeracy outcomes‘ – in other words, funding will likely be tied to participation and poor results in the NAPLAN tests, and further moves from genuine educational principles and sound pedagogical practices inevitably diminish.

The slide away from adequate educational support, based on sound pedagogical principles, and towards further diminishment of genuine qualitative assessment seems to thus already be taking place… of course, at first, only for students in genuine need. The method reminds me of the now famous [...but I cannot recall the source] post-WWII poetic reflection:

I didn’t object when they took the Jews, because I wasn’t Jewish. I didn’t object when they took Catholics, because I wasn’t Catholic. I didn’t object when they took homosexuals, because I wasn’t homosexual. I didn’t object when they took the Communists, because I wasn’t communist. When they came to take me, there was no one to object.

further information for parents, guardians and carers regarding the withdrawing of a child or children under their care from participating in NAPLAN tests.

Please do not be confused by the (it seems mandated) standard reply that ‘it is expected that all students will participate’… even to the question about whether or not a parent has an option to withdraw their child (which the above response sidesteps rather than answers). Parents have the right to withdraw their child(ren) in each and every State and Territory in Australia (which is different to a child being exempted for specific pedagogical, psychological or other reasons).

In NSW it states that:

‘Students may also be withdrawn from the test at the request of the parent/carer.’

For WA and the NT, it is stated thus:

Parents or caregivers may withdraw their children from the assessment. [...] Withdrawn students will be considered as being absent from the testing.

For the NT, it seems that a simple letter from the parents is sufficient… though both WA and the NT appear to have a DEADLINE as to when such can be presented…

reminds me of the Douglas Adams’s Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy: surely it’s the parents’ fault for not having informed themselves from an obscure document well filed in some remote location if they missed the deadline!

In SA, it seems also that parents had to inform themselves from the well filed documents that there is a deadline – though I would venture that if a principal (for schools that have a principal – NOT all do!) has NOT informed you, then there may be a legal case against the school:

‘Parents/caregivers may withdraw their child from the NAPLAN tests for philosophical or for personal reasons.[...]
The principal must finalise all student withdrawals by Friday 1 May.

For Qld, again the statement is clear:

‘Students may be withdrawn from participation in the NAPLAN tests at the written request of their parents/carers.’

Being based in Victoria, I have already provided the form in the main section of the blog entry above. still, for the sake of completeness, here is the statement:

‘In the event that a parent/carer wishes to withdraw their child from the NAPLAN 2009, signed parental consent using the Student Withdrawal Form (page 23) is required’

As to Tas. and the ACT, it seems the withdrawal information is even better filed than the other states! Please let me know their location if you find them (and good luck!). Though the Tasmanian situation is explained a little in what follows

One aspect of the Tasmanian site is factually incorrect (other states make similar comments, by the way, despite its obvious inaccuracy): it states that ‘All students [in yr 3, 5, 7 & 9] across Australia will be doing the same tests on the same days’… well, no… not quite: none of the withdrawn, exempted, nor absent students will be doing those tests, and some schools who have students participating may have applied for a variation of date. Having also recently contacted the Tas. Ed. body to aid my search, the reply in fact explained why I could not find information or form: it seems that only SCHOOLS can access this, as it is on their intranet, and for independent schools, it’s with the principals (I presume for schools that have no principal, check with the office)! Here is part of the reply that explains this:

The form is located on the Department of Education staff intranet for government schools, non-government school principals should have a copy of this form at their school. The process is to discuss the withdrawal with the child’s school principal, completed forms are then sent back to Educational Performance Services and the student is formally withdrawn from the testing. [my emphasis]

To their credit, the Dep. response was about the friendliest I have had, and they also (bless ‘em) sent me a copy of the form, downloadable from my site here. Given the nature of the form, I can well imagine how some parents may have pressure put on them to not withdraw their child – I would suggest to simply be firm about your intent and perhaps even inverse the question that is likely to be put to you: ‘why should my child participate, and can the principal assure that the data will NEVER be used at any time in the child’s life in any manner that may have negative consequences’

P.S.

As a small post-scriptum, I contacted the ‘Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs’ (MCEETYA) from the NAPLAN 2009 site (www.naplan.edu.au) as there is NO information to parents thereon that withdrawing their child is even an option. Their reply was that:

There are nationally agreed protocols around issues such as withdrawal of students. These are administered by the relevant Test Administration Authority

and directing me to the list of those ‘authorities’ for each State and Territory at www.naplan.edu.au/test_administration_authorities.html. As there are indeed nationally agreed protocols, ie, a parent or guardian may decide to simply withdraw their child(ren) from participating, it seems like purposeful manipulated dis-information that such is not on their website.

I would encourage any parent to request that such information is at least added to the FAQ page!

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