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Pathways-ED: Hey mate, it's NAPLAN time


Just enjoyed the luxury of a weekend in Sydney – a chance to take a break and enjoy for a few days the Aussie ambience.

Of course if you work in education you never entirely switch off for the issues are universal and the concerns of a community for the education of its young especially but also the wider community generally is something all countries share.

But I was quite surprised by the extent of the coverage of education in the newspapers. Some of the discussion was timeless – are our children safe? There are it was reported two incidents each week where intruders enter schools and lock-down procedures apply. The more popular press showed concerned parents (and who wouldn’t be in such circumstances) calling for all schools to be fenced so as to deter these intrusions. Fencing has been something of a trend here in New Zealand over past years and it is surprising that Australian schools are still hanging on to a physical openness that once used to be typical here.

But a lot of the discussion hinged around the release of the NAPLAN results.

The NAPLAN is becoming a very big item in the Australian school calendar. It is a set of national tests in in language and numeracy (hence NAPLAN – National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) which students sit in Years 3,5,7,9) but the data is released by the body responsible for administering and reporting on the tests (the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority) only through the MySchool website (

Of course the newspapers can’t resist the temptation to try to turn all this into league tables and The Australian newspaper goes as far as to produce “Top 100” lists in a special lift-out supplement. But interestingly the stories that make the front page of that newspaper have headlines such as “Cane-country schools teach a lesson in how to defy disadvantage”. This all seems very jolly and “good-on-you” stuff. The article then reveals a stark truth – among the 1000-odd most disadvantaged primary schools in Australia, only 46 score above the national average in reading, writing and numeracy.

The stand-outs among disadvantaged schools where the results are markedly high do not claim miracles but rather an unrelenting focus on what is required to get students to learn – attendance, respect for teaching staff,  and community engagement which seems to be central to their success. Underpinning this is a clear and undented belief among those principals in the ability of all students to learn, a level of positivity that seems to me to be typical in the Australian educational discourse.

I have on other occasions been impressed by the ability of Australian media generally to handle education matters in a level-headed kind of way with contributions from professional bodies being ones that add to that quality. There is not the default opposition of pretty well all education topics that characterises the Kiwi way. This is not to say the education discussions are devoid of heat.  Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Queensland Premier Cameron Newman were at loggerheads. Newman proposes to pay teacher bonuses for performance and surrounds all this with all the words that go with “quality of education”, “concern for young people” and “rewarding our best teachers”. Gillard sees this as a betrayal of the federal reforms led by her, popularly known as the Gorski reforms, which would have seen money directed to schoo­ls rather than to teachers deemed to be high performing. The teacher associations are comfortable with one of these and not so much with the other.

But the coverage of this difference of opinion stood out on the rather flat and measured plain of education discussion.

“Flat” wasn’t the word for it when I had a look at the Australian House of Representatives (as one does when in relaxed more). They were giving the Australian Education (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013 a second reading. This bill is all about reform funding for “participating schools” and suchlike. An earnest speech was being delivered by an earnest member of the Government. He was the only MP from the government in the House at that time. It was being listened to by an equally earnest and respectful member of the Labor Opposition who was at that time the only opposition member in the house. 

And this on the same day that the NAPLAN results coverage revealed that only 5 of the 10% of most disadvantaged schools in Australia were in the upper 1,000 schools. This is what reforms must address – and on both sides of the Tasman.



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Talk-ED: The right of the community to know

Stuart Middleton
2 May 2011

School holidays over and its back to the normal pattern. I had the chance to attend for varying lengths of time a few conferences over the past two weeks both here in NZ and in Australia.

The period has seen the publishing of NCEA results in New Zealand newspapers and despite dire predictions, civilisation once again did not come to an end. In fact I thought the response relatively muted with an almost helpful editorial in the NZ Herald.

It is still a problem that the reporting of these results is based on the percentage of students in a Year group who succeed in the anticipated “correct” NCEA level for that year. There is no requirement for perhaps even sense in relating Year 11 to NCEA Level 1,Year 12 to Level 2 and so on. The lockstep nature of this habit makes it difficult to actually know what the success is for a cohort. For instance, if 70% of a Year 11 group succeed in getting NCEA Level 1 and are then allowed to proceed to Level 2 in Year 12 and the reported success rate is 75%, the actual success rate in terms of the cohort coming through is at 56%.

But it must be inevitable that there is study at multiple levels and many students get their Level 1 in their Year 12 or even Year 13. How is this communicated?

So in reality the figures might be a pretty poor representation of what is happening with lower decile schools probably being shown as succeeding at levels that are lower than their actual achievement. Higher decile schools are probably about right. The NZ Herald editorial suggests that funding is the only way to lessen the gap between high and low decile schools. It is probably the case that the advantage of high decile schools over low decile schools is still at about 20%.

The matter of National Standards continued to get attention with a “boycott” by some primary schools. The actual number of the boycott group was a little hard to judge from reports. If every principal at that particular conference vote for the boycott then it suggests that perhaps as many as perhaps 30% of primary schools will not be reporting to the National Standards. But it is hard to tell from the reports. It might have been a small majority (and therefore only 15% of schools). It seems as if we have real issues in telling an accurate story. Many parents that I meet are very happy that their childrens’ schools are simply getting on with the job and they appreciate the additional information they are getting.

At the heart of anxieties about NCEA reporting and the National Standards is a view that it could all be damaging to schools when they are compared with each other, if they are compared with each other.

This too is the concern in Australia and a report in last Saturday’s The Australian drew my attention with a headline TEST CHEATS BLOCK THE GOALS OF EDUCATION REFORM. The reform referred to is the National Assessment Programme for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and its associated MySchool website, a government initiative that puts all the information about a school on a website and this includes the latest NAPLAN results. But who are the cheats? There is quite a list of students who are valid omissions from the tests but schools are going beyond this to include students who might lower the reported success rate of the school. Apparently it is common. The cheats are those who lead school and instruct certain parents to keep their children at home on certain days thus removing them from that testing regime that is the NAPLAN. Apparently there is also a developing practice of preparing students for the tests – another form of cheating it is claimed. Some schools are circulating practice papers with exemplar answers.

Thank goodness that New Zealand went down a reporting road rather than a testing road, leaving the testing to the teachers and the school working in the context of their programme.

It is a mockery of professional standards when education is frustrated in reporting to the community on its performance by any lack of openness and certainly by any deliberate attempt to frustrate the system.  Those who wish not to take part would be better, rather than merely protesting, to suggest other and even better ways of getting information to the community.

Parents and caregivers want to know what is happening. Indeed it is their right.

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