Does high Stakes Testing (MySchool website) improve education?

Distinguished Guest Writer

Breen Stephen Breen is the President of the Western Australian Primary Principals’ Association and is also Treasurer of the Australian Primary Principals’ Association.

Stephen has been in primary education for over 35 years graduating from Edith Cowan University and holds post graduate qualifications in computer education and professional accounting

In his career he has taught in a number of city and regional schools and has held the position of teacher, deputy principal and principal of District High schools and primary schools. He has also worked in private industry in a seconded position with the ANZ bank.

Stephen has held the position of President of WAPPA since December 2007 and has been on the Board of Management for over 8 years.

In 2005 he held the position of General Manager of the Western Australian Government Schools Leadership Centre. Stephen also sits on the Boards of the non-profit organisation ‘Millennium Kids’ a self-help youth group who fund and organise projects both within Western Australia and internationally and Nature Play WA a community group setup to get children more involved in outdoor activities.

Phil Cullen

Does high Stakes Testing (MySchool website) improve education?

Stephen Breen

We all know that the existing education bureaucracy and our politicians look upon the MySchool website as their vehicle to develop education as a priority within the Australian culture. The website has been developed by politicians to give the general public a simple and easily understood mechanism to understand if Australian kids were improving in their basic skills.

“Among schools with similar students, those achieving higher student performances can stimulate others to lift expectations of what they and their students can achieve. The schools with higher performing students can be a source of information for others on the policies and practices that produce those higher performances.” (Barry McGaw, Chair ACARA)

The proponents of the MySchool website argue on a choice and transparency platform and the one that I particular like is that ‘the government has to be sure they are getting value for money’.

Other ‘educational experts’ use the left and right political rhetoric slant, “As popular as the league tables were with parents, they also enraged teachers unions and the public school lobby which saw them as the education equivalent to opening the gates of hell.”(Nine Network Investigations Editor Kelvin Bissett)

These reasons for the initial popularity of the MySchool website were easy to understand however they dismiss what is actually happening in schools and what has occurred throughout the world with the introduction of high stakes tests.

High stakes testing in Australia is developing a culture of compliance that is clearly, counter-productive to what the average parents wants for their child. Parents of primary students that I have spoken to clearly want their child to be given an all round education that includes the basic literacy and numeracy skills coupled with social and physical development and most importantly a sense of the world and the ability to get on with their peers.

Unfortunately due to this top down push a greater number of schools are narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test and developing assessment strategies that use NAPLAN as the sole assessment strategy.

We also have educational authorities (sadly to say nearly all in the government sector) who use the NAPLAN results as the sole gauge of a schools performance while there is little reference to evidence of attainments levels based on socio economic issues. If you have a red mark then you will receive the ‘inspector’ but if your squares are green you will be left to get on with the job. Our leaders are at pains to say that they do not want the NAPLAN results to be such a big issue however when they put such huge accountability on one test no wonder schools have reacted.

The basic fact is that authorities have taken their eye of the ball and now look to NAPLAN as the gauge of school success. After a period where the skills and knowledge of Teaching and Learning where the most important priorities of the profession we now have a compliance culture based on a one off test.

Before I move on it must be said that Principals from around Australia acknowledge that the NAPLAN evaluation process is an excellent analytical tool however due to the development of the MySchool website and its ‘inspectorial’ accountability regime the testing has in many schools negatively affected the average parents’ aspirations and for the school it has become anti-education.

Are we alone in this view, certainly not!

In trawling the internet you can find arguments for and against high stakes testing with the ‘for’ argument highlighting the practicality and ease of the testing, objectiveness and preparation for entry to higher education while the ‘against’ argument centres on equity, stress on students and impediments to improving a holistic education environment and the detrimental development of educationally based assessments

The political ‘experiment’ of high stakes testing has been going on in America for many years with spectacular failures.

“We have had a full decade of No Child Left Behind, and we now know that the law has been a disaster. True, it has documented the shocking gaps in passing rates between different groups of children, but it has done nothing to change the conditions that cause those gaps.” [Diane Ravitch, formally Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush]

An interesting article can be read at that chronicle a decade of test scores in New York.

This failure is also evident in England

“Many of the fears in Australia about the dysfunctional effects of national testing, an excessive focus on and unrealistic expectations for standards, the narrowing of curriculum, and high levels of stress for students and teachers have been borne out in experience in England.” The impact of high stakes tests driven accountability”, Brian J. Caldwell

If you believe the argument ‘against’ the highlighting of high stakes testing in Australia and most educators would, we need to ask ourselves what is to be done by the teaching profession if we are to stop the problems escalating within our schools.

The idea of not participating in the tests in many ways is self defeating since we all agree the tests themselves give good information to schools. Our concern, as the association has always articulated, is not the tests themselves but the effects of the high stakes testing on the educational environment within schools and community understanding of schooling.

The answer I believe is a ‘Ghandi like’ approach, proactive non-participation! In that I mean schools should approach the NAPLAN as one of the ‘tools of the trade’ and get on with the work of educating the students but distance themselves from the MySchool website and the whole of system accountability measures.

It would be suggested that schools should not participate in any areas that highlight or assist the high stakes testing of students:

Look very carefully on any program (Department or commercial) that plans a run-up to the ‘big week’ by taking away valuable instruction time in all the learning areas.

Resist scheduling a program of special run throughs of previous NAPLAN questions. This is not to say schools should not educate their students on the interpretation of questioning for tests but it should be completed within a year program and not leading up to the ‘test’.

Do not highlight the NAPLAN score in any article to parents. You could inform the parents the week of the test but keep it very low key.

Try not to publicise any changes in NAPLAN scores from year to year other than in annual reports. Publicity of the MySchool website will simply breed interest.

Debate with line managers and ERG personnel the educational merit of interpreting test scores based on small cohorts, transiency of students, and evidence of research quoting change management takes time, transient staffing issues.

Be openly sceptical with the community on the use and advantage of the MySchool website as a ‘yardstick’ of education improvement.

At every opportunity with both the public and the education community take a stand and point out that the negative aspects of an overemphasis of NAPLAN scores on schools students and resourcing of schools.

Start to use the slogan, “The MySchool website is anti-education”

Do not talk about the NAPLAN testing process with staff other than in the context of the whole school assessment process.

Downgrade the whole MySchool website hype with staff. Resist timetabling whole of staff meetings to discuss NAPLAN results but work proactively with individuals or with small groups to highlight areas of need from the analysis

Above all look to improving the practices of Teaching and Learning as the cornerstone of your educational improvement program, with better teaching comes better results!

The MySchool website is a political animal rather that one based on educational thought. In time it will be modified and hopefully abandoned however it is up to senior leaders in schools to lead the change.

Article and information you might like to use to push the cause:


One thought on “Does high Stakes Testing (MySchool website) improve education?

  1. Stephen Breen’s ‘Ghandi’ like approach, compliance with the testing, but not with the hyping of the results is likely to be a grand failure. Having allowed the Government to access your narrowly based NAPLAN test scores, as a principal you would have little option but to suffer whatever ‘stakes’ the government chooses to attach to the test. One cannot simply refuse to participate in a mandated ‘inspection’, any more than as a minor executive in the system, one can choose not to participate in any of the tied funding programs. A rational but compliant manager would have no option but to maximize his school’s performance according to the prevailing criteria. He would get little thanks from his staff, students or their parents, if reduced emphasis on the tests meant weaker results and missing out on extra resources.

    In reality, Mr Ghandi’s non-violent non-compliance strategy would have involved not participating in the testing in the first place. True, you’d miss out on all the ‘valuable’ data, but surely as professionals we know enough about education to be able to measure our own outcomes without subjecting ourselves to an external testing regime?

    This system is designed simply, so that politicians can simply blame someone else, notably the teachers, for the failure of the education system. Any compliance is like handing the whip to your master and inviting him to use it to teach you a lesson.

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