Friday, May 21, 2010

Australian Kids Left Behind

Here in Australia we've just had this year's NAPLAN testing. Think "No Child Left Behind" transported (like a convict) to Australia, then add a government website that displays all the schools' results so the media can heap scorn on poorly performing schools, and that's what we've got. Many, many people are against it. Teachers were going to strike and refuse to administer the tests. John Marsden has made it clear that he thinks they are damaging and ill-informed. But somebody in our government decided it was a great idea. Maybe they'd been on a junket to the USA at the height of NCLB and thought: Gee, we could do that, too.

So I was fascinated to hear that Diane Ravitch, who was Assistant Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, and a great proponent of NCLB, come out and say I WAS WRONG. Here is a quote from her interview published in Slate:
People are being punished because of test scores. We've created a system where Mrs. Smith is going to teach nothing but what's tested. The arts aren't tested and the sciences aren't tested, and the conservative response to that is, "Well, test everything." But the problem is—and this is another thing I found myself recoiling from—then you'll do nothing but test. People tend to scoff at anything that's subjective, but it's the essays and the projects that make it fun for kids and give them an opportunity to show comprehension.

I don't know a huge number of people in the US, but many I do know are either teachers or know teachers. NCLB was wrong from the beginning, just as NAPLAN here is wrong. People will say, "What is wrong with testing if it shows which schools are under-performing?" I would say, "Under-performing according to who?" I was recently at a school where I was supposed to be doing writing workshops with the kids. That was fine. What wasn't fine was that I was supposed to teach them how to write a story that would get a good NAPLAN mark.

I teach writing all the time, to adults, who have a much vaster reading and life experience to draw on in order to write a good story. Most of the time, they don't succeed. Much of the time, despite my experience as a teacher and writer, I struggle to give their work a grade. We have transparent criteria, based on collective experience, that we use, but sometimes it's still like trying to measure air. How on earth can a government testing system possibly test story writing and create marking criteria that covers every single child in Australia?

How can you mark a story by a child who is a refugee, writing about their life, against a story by a child who has written about their summer holiday in Bali? Except of course some bright spark decided to make that easier by stipulating the thing they all have to write about. I thought we got rid of that antiquated story-writing tactic back in the 1950s. Well, never mind my gripes about creative writing. I'm on the side of the teachers who say that what inevitably happens is they have to teach to the tests. Again, I've heard many US teachers say they had to stop reading aloud in the classroom - in fact, they had to stop most things that weren't directly related to the tests.

And they wonder why kids hate school? (See Ravitch's comment again above.) She also said:
To me it's almost self-evident that No Child Left Behind is a failure, but people will say, "Well, Congress doesn't think so." It's like everybody agrees except for the teachers, who are the ones who have to do it.
And that is already our biggest problem here. Julia Gillard has signalled quite clearly that she's not backing down on NAPLAN at all, and has reluctantly agreed to make some changes to the website in order to make sure teachers did administer the tests this month. But once something becomes ingrained in a government system, they sure do hate backing down and dismantling it. Never mind the money they waste on other things.

Gillard is also supposedly running an enquiry into school librarians. As I've said here before, there are hardly any left so that won't take long. The bottom line is, if you really want to fix a state school system, you put more money into it. Not by giving kids laptops, but by giving them real, everyday, useful resources like books, more teachers and school librarians. It doesn't matter what medium kids will use in the future for work and leisure, if they can't read well, they'll fall further and further behind in this world. Nobody needs a test to tell them that!


Pat Flynn said...

Hear, hear!
If you make the test results public then schools will spend months preparing for it and try to to work the system. Although I was at a school yesterday where the teacher said schools who performed badly on NAPLAN got extra funding. If that is the case schools might work the system to perform badly! Either way spending too much time on standardised testing or preparing for testing is a bad thing.

Sherryl said...

I totally agree, Pat. Teachers struggle for time as it is - when you are forced to teach to a test, all creativity and joy goes out the window.
I really don't understand why politicians will not listen to teachers - do they suspect them of making it up, for heaven's sake? I think all pollies should be made to spend a week in a class where they are made to learn for the NAPLAN test - I reckon 98% would fail!