New Zealand’s national standards in education are not national or standard.

By Allan Alach

Reposted from The Daily Blog

At the end of this month the New Zealand government will release the national standards data that will a) ‘prove’ that their education policies are ‘raising achievement’ and b) ‘prove’ that there is a wide variation of school effectiveness and that teachers’ performance is therefore deficient.

All this, of course, is derived from the school ‘reform’ handbook that has been imported from overseas.

Waikato University Professor of Education Martin Thrupp, a long time campaigner against the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), for example in his book ‘Schools Making A Difference’, has written an article in The New Zealand Herald that critiques this data release.  Martin’s analysis makes very similar points to those that I’ve expressed previously, albeit in much more authoritative and better expressed way!

“The published data appears straight-forward enough – percentages of children “above”, “at” “below” or “well below” the standard for their year group in each school. But there is nothing standard about what underlies the tidy rows of figures. Schools’ approaches to making judgments against the National Standards are so idiosyncratic and wide-ranging that it is impossible to accurately compare achievement between any two schools, let alone “apples with apples” comparisons across more than 2000 New Zealand primary and intermediate schools.”

Thrupp’s findings are based on a sample of six schools and one can only imagine what the nationwide figure would be like. He has found that the variations in each school’s methods of making their Overall Teacher Judgements (OTJs), such as the differing mixes of judgements and use of the standardised tests such as e-assTTle and STAR, throws doubt on the validity and reliability of any conclusions.

“The numerous sources of variation that underlie schools’ judgments also mean that any claim of overall improvement or decline in the achievement of New Zealand children against the National Standards will be quite spurious.”

Interestingly the government has chosen to produce their own nationwide analysis of results, having accepted the inevitability of the media doing likewise. One wonders if this is a precursor to the release of school based results in a month or so – will the government produce their own league tables to preempt media versions?

Thrupp’s long and well expressed opposition to GERM has naturally seen him denigrated by the government ( e.g previous Minister of Education Anne Tolley), using their well trodden personal attack path. This however, in no way diminishes his authority and so his findings add to the increasing weight of evidence against national standards.

His article also discusses issues with the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT) which I have also described in an earlier article. The government, having conceded (off the record) that national standards rankings based on teacher judgements is a very flawed beast indeed, is developing PaCT in an attempt to obtain more objective outcomes from subjective teacher judgements. Thrupp also raises concerns about this, including the possibility (probability?) that we could be looking at yet another government IT failure, to go with Novopay (a very problematic teacher payroll system)  and many others (remember INCIS?).

“But if the PaCT is intended mainly as a form of national moderation (ie informing other assessment processes rather than itself becoming the assessment tool for making judgments), then it can be expected to be an expensive failure.”

Further, the design concept behind PaCT still suffers from the problems of using sampling assessments to determine overall achievement. Sampling like this only measures the very areas that are deemed to be significant, as if learning can be digitised into discreet segments. Different sampling can and does result in different results, and thus the outcomes are likely to be as variable as the teacher judgements. This is especially so when the very conditions leading to variability are ignored – the biggest of these being family poverty, which, as we know, is the ‘ elephant’ that the government doesn’t want to acknowledge.

“By failing to recognise the underlying causes of variation, it is likely to allow the Government to ignore the impact of contextual inequalities between schools, for instance, the effects of diverse and unequal intakes and communities, school locations, staffing and other resources.”

The whole process is a crock. It can’t work, and won’t work. There is a basic similarity with Novopay, where the basic concept and design is so flawed that achieving any kind of reliability is going to be very expensive, if at all possible. The government’s ‘raising achievement through national standards’ policies have similar concept and design errors.

“National Standards may be a government aspiration but they are not national and they never will be while there is so much potential for local variation. It is almost comical – if it weren’t so serious – that data representing such variation is being put into the public domain for comparative purposes when there are so many differences between schools in what it actually represents.”

The whole national standards and raising achievement rhetoric is a farce, a con job being perpetrated on the parents of New Zealand children in order to gain votes and has nothing to do with education.


NAPLAN chaos week.




The Treehorn Express

A tribute to the poor unfortunate blanket testing victims everywhere.

‘Care for Kids’



naplan%20gargoyle%201[2]The NAPLAN idol went crazy this week.

 THE TESTS were held, accompanied by the usual array of impacts on children’s learnings: assault on the cognitive domain of learning, induced stress on children, endless weeks of heavy practice, 3 days sweating over statistically invalid tests, suspension of professional ethics, teaching to the test, side-lining of more important aspects of the curriculum, parental worry and concern, indulging in the blame game, reporting of cheating and of leaks of writing topics. The airways were full of advice to mums of little Year 3 kids on how to handle their stress. Nothing unusual. Situation normal. Unreliable twisted results in about five months!

Heaps of money is available for this form of schooling. NAPLAN WEEK was BUDGET WEEK as well. Who’s worried about costs? A small part of cost includes the printing of the test papers: $46 per paper x 1,030,00 victims = $47.5 million. Now starts the marking of the papers….$10 million. We’ll learn the entirely useless scores in five months. Great system of testucation, we have. Needs re-form or replacement with an education system, perhaps?



The presentation by Channel 7’s TODAY TONIGHT was exceptional. It featured Kimberley College on the outskirts of Brisbane. This is a world-renowned school that emphasises LEARNING through its curriculum patterns adapted from de Bono’s lateral thinking techniques. Its multi-age structure supports a cheerful approach to high-level cognitive development. It’s philosophy dismisses the threats to learning that NAPLAN embraces, but it makes arrangements for its 10 NAPLAN contestants whose parents want their children to contest. 140 parents, whose children were ‘expected’ by ACARA to be part of the test cohort, refused.

The TV program featured parents from other schools who are worried about the damage that the testing does, the distress that it causes to emotional develoment and the impact on enrolment possibilities if they wish to send their children to a high-fee private school. It also showed an ACARA officer defending NAPLAN against the growing criticisms of the tests, saying that the scores were useful. It also showed the founders and beneficiaries of the NAPLAN system – Joel Klein and Rupert Murdoch.

Rupert...’the man who has most shaped the world’ as Tony Abbott describes him. Heil.

It’s worth looking at, again. It’s a doozie.



What an amazing state of affairs. The principal of a school tells parents what authorities should be telling them….their children don’t have to sit NAPLAN. He shares his professional opinion with the parents of his school and it makes national headlines. Mentioned on the front page of Sydney’s finest. Extraordinary!!!!?????

What has Australian education come to? Have we sunk so low– that this sort of school business is even mentioned?

[I wonder what support he will get from his colleagues. Will they render support by following suit[e]….or will they sycophantically comply with the politically deliberate cover-up ?]

The issue at stake: The more parents pull out, the more useless the tests become, the quicker they are abandoned, the more the kids return to learning activities, the more money for the Treasurer to transfer to Gonski reforms. Bingo!



The Courier Mail reported on the number of NAPLAN cheating incidents during the 2012 tests. A principal was sacked.

Queensland had already won the award in the previous NAPLAN tests for the most cheating incidents in Australia. [GO QUEENSLAND!] There is no evidence as to who won the A Grade Award for cheating on the widest scale of all :using all sorts of non-learning test-prep devices as much as possible.

Make sure you read the comments.



Keith Williams of Bargara wrote this week about a book “ David Owen titled ‘None of the Above’. It exposes the SAT as a total sham and nothing’s changed. I’m surprised that Gillard hasn’t followed their lead and charged the kids to sit NAPLAN to help plug her party’s abyss.

I did a quick search to see if anyone has researched the multiple choice answers. From what I’ve seen whoever writes NAPLAN hasn’t got any much of an idea what wrong answer should be. Owen’s book covers this among a lot of other disturbing facts.”

Over to all the holy testucators. Agree? Right wrong answers can be a learning experience, but then… are measurers.



You might recall that a Senate Committee of Inquiry was established in September 2012, following a plea from The Greens, to deal with “Teaching and Learning – maximising our investment in Australian schools”. It was widely representative of states and political parties. Its establishment was not mentioned in public. Controlled Press Silence is still well organised down under. Some [chosen?] institutions and organisations knew of it’s existence, so almost all submissions came from individuals who claimed to represent esteemed groups. Very few submissions came from the chalk face where real teaching and learning operates.

The report was tabled this week in the Senate on 14 May, Not a mention in any form of media. What else?

Its 116 pages are very readable; a tribute to the seven-member secretariat. Don’t anticipate headlines in newspapers any time soon.



disturbed by the Fish Oil, Teddy Bear, Test-prep Booklets and Back-yard Test-prep lessons furore, called for a snap senate inquiry into NAPLAN and it was approved by the Senate. Apparently contributors are protected by parliamentary privilege from the kinds of harassment now being experienced, if they wish to speak their mind.

Check FaceBook:

Link One.

Link Two.



The question now arises : How will all schools be encouraged to tell teachers and parents that there no constraints on expressing their opinion? How will this be arranged? Will the Senate send a notice out to every school in time for the close of responses on 7 June?

In the meantime, please encourage everyone you know to send a comment to or direct to the senate officers. It will be an enormous shame if every teacher and parent is not informed of the rights and privileges extended to them …..under the present totalitarian regime, too.

If the Terms of Reference seem soft and aimed at maintaining the status quo, still send your own sincere comments. There is a need for a few million hard-hitting responses before the present lot of politicians from all parties will cancel standardised blanket testing. They just don’t understand the words of ‘Care for Kids’

A hint for contributors: Claim chairmanship of an organisation or group or anything e.g. GONSKI SOCIETY [Kumagutsa Branch] – (Guiding Our Nation’s School Kids Intelligently in Kumagutsa) – or something. It helps. A doctorate is also impressive. You could follow the lead of one of the authors of 1066 and All That who claimed to be a B.A.[Failed]……Try Dr.[Failed], UHK..not Hong Kong. More notice will be taken and you are likely to be quoted at length.

I’m being facetious…….


ALLAN ALACH of Treehorn Express will ensure complete anonymity if you should like to ‘sound off’ about any issue. In Educational Readings May 17 by Allan Alach, you will find that guarantee.

 PLEASE EVERY-BODY. EVERYBODY USE EITHER ALLAN or PENNY’s offers to help get rid of the NAPLAN scourge – completely.




The attached arrived on Friday from a Treehorn reader. I know nothing of its origin. It’s all part of this topsy-turvy NAPLAN week.



I received this distressing comment from a reputable consultancy firm that concentrates on helping kids in need.

 ‘Phil. I have spent the week talking to stressed-out kids and their parents. They are coming in pale and exhausted. I have children who are not sleeping. Some kids are having their results of preparatory tests rank ordered and written up in rank order on the whiteboard. One Year Five child told me she was really worried because if she did badly she would not get into a good high school. For the dyslexic and Irlen Syndrome children it is completely impossible to do well on the test.

Every year it gets worse as I see an increasing focus on the preparation for NAPLAN in Term One. The curriculum is tossed out.”



To complete a really stunning week, Allan Alach circulated a telling presentation by Sir Ken Robinson. Watch it again…



Julia and Peter, and your replacement Chris, are probably proud to continue doing this sort of treatment to young innocent children; and then have the temerity to pat yourselves on the back for the sake of ill-gained useless scores. It’s a political mess that no one dares to tidy up. Maybe Penny…if you write to her. Don’t forget : ‘Care for Kids’

Phil Cullen

Caring for Kids

41 Cominan Avenue

Banora Point 2486

07 552 6443

Educational Readings May 17th

By Allan Alach

One of the zillions of overseas websites that I follow includes a weekly ‘Secret Teacher’ blog. It strikes me that there maybe many teachers out there who have very strong feelings about educational matters in their own country, but who are naturally afraid to speak out due to employment matters. Having been hit by the clobbering machine myself in late 2011, I can sympathise with this.

I’d like to offer the chance for any disaffected teacher to sound off in absolute anonymity. If you would like to do this, email your article to me and I will post it as a Secret Teacher posting on The Treehorn Express. Avoid defamatory and abusive language, both for legal reasons, and also because that’s the approach beloved of right wing trolls – we don’t need to descend to their level. Rational, well reasoned and well referenced articles are much more powerful!

I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

 This week’s homework!

 The Current School Reform Landscape: Christopher H. Tienken (via Kevin Woodley).

Christopher Tienken, Ed.D. is an assistant professor of Education Administration at Seton Hall University in the College of Education and Human Services, Department of Education Management, Policy, and Leadership.

This video is about the USA educational scene, however it is very relevant, in most part, to New Zealand and Australia. A great watch.

‘Is it necessary to have every child master the same exact material at the same level of difficulty?’

Spelling and grammar test for all 11-year-olds to tackle poor literacy

Up to 600,000 (English) schoolchildren will be required to sit a new exam in spelling, punctuation and grammar amid fears that almost a quarter of pupils are starting secondary education with substandard literacy skills.

While GERM down under may be causing grief, things could be much worse.

The Power of Metaphor

A commonly expressed concern of the intensely limited focus on the 3Rs that is implicit in GERM, is the neglect of the arts. This article by Pat Buoncristiani provides another window on how this will affect vulnerable children’s development.

How to escape education’s death valley

Sir Ken Robinson – no other introduction needed.

Could it be our understanding of ‘Quality’…that is BROKEN, perhaps?

Blogger Tony Gurr, writing from Turkey ( proof of the international nature of the battle for true education) touches on a vitally important issue – what is ‘Quality’? Tony includes the vital reference here, Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance,’  a discussion of Quality. If you’ve not read that book recently, or not read it at all, then you have some homework. I’m on my 3rd copy, having read the preceding copies so many times that they fell apart. This understanding of quality underpins the battle for holistic, rich, child centred education. You will note, in Pirsig’s book, many similarities between standardised education and the lack of quality that he contends is destructive to modern life.

Shonky Data and Shabby Journalism – Must Be National Standards Time Again

Save Our Schools NZ blogger Dianne Khan commenting on the way the NZ government manipulates data to prove that their GERM policies are ‘working’.

Education Should Liberate, Not Indoctrinate

Another excellent link to Yong Zhao – one of the main players in the international anti-GERM disinfectant battle.

How do Finnish kids excel without rote learning and standardized testing?

More of the same but no less valuable for that. Finland remains our most effective tool in the battle to disinfect schools from GERMs.

The biggest topic in New Zealand education this week was the debate in parliament on the Education Amendment bill that will pass legislation to establish charter school. Here are postings by Bruce Hammonds and Kelvin Smythe about this.

New Zealand education. A choice between Creativity and Charter Schools

  Charter schools are …

NAPLAN is driving our students backwards

Reposted from the Sydney Morning Herald.

NAPLAN is driving our students backwards

Date: May 15, 2013
Peter Job

The ranking system does more harm to learning than good.

The 2013 round of NAPLAN tests are under way this week. With results not supplied until September they will be of little use to teachers as a guide to student learning.

When results are finally released, however, teachers and schools know from experience what to expect. Schools will be compared with each other by local media, some lauded as successes and others derided as failures.

Competition between jurisdictions will also be evident, with state and territory results compared, discussed and ranked, conjectures and theories put forward to explain different levels of achievement. Students will take home reports to allow parents, supposedly, to monitor their child’s progress in relation to their peers.

In light of this, it is interesting to compare these results with another prominent test of educational achievement, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of reading, mathematics and science for 15-year-olds run every three years by the OECD. Comparative results for states and territories are markedly different.

Victoria, which ranked second after the ACT in NAPLAN Year 9 reading in 2009 ranked only fifth in PISA. Queensland, which ranked a lowly seventh place for Year 9 NAPLAN ranked a more impressive third in PISA that year.

Of the two tests, there is good reason to believe PISA is the more reliable. As a sample test rather than a full cohort test, it is not subject to distortions brought about by accountability and teaching to the test.

Yet, to a large extent, this is to miss the point. A key rationale of NAPLAN has always been so-called transparency, with parents encouraged to judge schools by their comparative NAPLAN results posted on the My School website and the test supposedly used to identify successful and ”failing” schools. Yet even states and territories display markedly different results in different tests of the same measure of the same age group held in the same year.

Studies in the US and the UK, both of which have conducted full cohort accountability testing for many years longer than Australia, have also indicated limitations in the use of testing for school comparisons or improvement. A study by the University of California, for example, found that test score volatility made it very difficult to accurately compare schools and that this results in ”some schools being recognised as outstanding and other schools as in need of improvement simply as the result of random fluctuations”.

In the UK, a 2010 parliamentary report noted that the Achievement and Attainment Tables of school test results, the UK equivalent of the My School website, had ”inherent methodological and statistical problems”, which led parents to ”interpret the data presented without taking into account their inherent flaws”. As a result, schools felt constrained to teach to the test, narrow curriculum and push students towards ”easier” qualifications in order to maximise performance data.

In Australia, Melbourne University academic Professor Margaret Wu has also noted the limitations of NAPLAN as a test of individual student achievement or progress. The magnitude of measurement error in a test conducted on one day is such that not only is it a problematic measure of individual student achievement, but when this uncertainty is compounded over two tests a fall or rise in relation to peer test performance could well indicate simple statistical uncertainty or particular circumstances on test days rather than an actual change in achievement.

Parents should be aware that a quality report by a professional teacher encompassing a range of measures over time, preferably accompanied by a face-to-face discussion, is a far better indicator of student capabilities than a NAPLAN report.

Evidence of the damage of test-based accountability regimes is clear in the US and the UK. Subjects not tested, such as history and art, are marginalised and even those tested narrowed to improve test results. There is also evidence that such regimes create incentives to exclude students who some schools perceive as liabilities, further increasing educational segregation and inequity.

Here in Australia, NAPLAN is increasingly unpopular with teachers, creating as it does an incentive to value test results over the long-term educational wellbeing of our students.

High standards of literacy and numeracy are a fundamental responsibility of schools and teachers. However, there is little evidence that testing accountability regimes such as NAPLAN improve these areas.

On the contrary, countries that rank above us in PISA, such as Finland and Canada, take a very different approach, emphasising a broad creative curriculum, equity and a high degree of teacher trust rather than the test-based model prevalent in the US and the UK. Both the latter countries fall well below us in PISA, and it is ironic that they, rather than those nations that do better, have served as models for change here.

Supporters of NAPLAN laud such an approach as ”evidence based”, providing ”hard” data to monitor achievement and assist in the preparations of road maps for improvement. The evidence simply does not support these claims.

NAPLAN is driving us backwards, not forwards.

Peter Job is an English and humanities teacher at Dandenong High School. His master’s thesis was National Benchmark Testing, League Tables and Media Reporting of Schools.

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Cross Party Resistance to Charter Schools

Reposted from Save Our Schools NZ


Yesterday (May 14th) the New Zealand Parliament debated the Education Amendment Bill that will allow for the establishment of charter schools. In this post, Dianne Khan provides an excellent overview of the debate and includes video links of the key speeches from opposition members of Parliament.


Cross Party Resistance to Charter Schools


“Is this change good for education?”  

That’s the question Chris Hipkins tells us to ask ourselves of the proposed charter schools.  And after trawling through mountains of evidence over the past year, I have to say the answer is no.

Like Chris, I believe we should be focused on making sure every student in New Zealand can achieve their potential, in all schools.  We should be raising the bar, focusing on those not achieving their potential, and supporting all of our schools to innovate within and share good practice so that the whole system s brought up and improved further.

Charter schools are not the answer.  They are not about education.  They are not about improving our system.  They do not aim to make things better for all students – not even for all  Maori or Pasifika students.  They are not about collaboration and the sharing of best practice.

They are about privatising schools, pure and simple.

Chris points out that all evidence is clear that teacher quality is a huge factor in the success of a student, and yet this Bill lowers the bar rather than raising it.  Last year the government were saying all teachers needed a Masters Degree – now, apparently, a teacher can be anyone, with no training whatsoever.  Why the change?  It’s simple – the government will say anything to attack teachers, but suddenly change tack when it comes to “private, profit-making institutions”.

Chris’s speech in full is here and raises many issues with charter schools that people (including many teachers)  may not be aware of.  It’s really worth watching.

Catherine Delahunty put it bluntly but correctly, yesterday, when she said “this Bill is ridiculous and it is also quite sick”, going on to point out that it allows for children to be used in an experiment that evidence shows to work very poorly for minority groups.

Catherine pointed out the obvious that when parents in poor families are working very long hours to bring in a pitiful wage, there isn’t a whole lot of time left to help with a child’s education.  Little time to give a hand with homework.  Not much spare to buy computers so kids can work at home.  Nothing left for school donations.

Poverty is a key factor in poor education achievement, as recognised by the OECD, and yet nothing has been done to address that important issue.  While families are facing inequality on the level New Zealand sees, there will always be inequality in education, too.

Why does government not tackle poverty? … Maybe because it doesn’t make businesses any money?

What this Bill is really about is privatisation for the benefit of businesses and corporates, some of whom are not even Maori, Pasifika or Kiwi.  If it were about helping all kids succeed, then ALL schools would be given the same freedoms.

Metiria Turei challenged National and ACT politicians to send their children to a charter school.

They probably would, to be honest.  Not yet, but in the long run.  Because once the pretence of charters being for the poor kids, the brown kids, the lower achieving kids,  is over, the truth is we will see charters appearing for wealthy kids, essentially providing publicly-funded private schools with no accountability.

Be very clear: This is not about the ‘long tail of underachievement’- it is a sneaky and underhand way of bringing in private schools that public money pays for, and in the end those schools will be for wealthy kids.

Tracey Martin gave an outstanding speech, too, outlining why this Bill makes a mockery of the submissions process and democracy  Many on the panel choose to ignore expert and popular opinion, instead listening with deaf ears and closed minds, following an ideology that they were predetermined to accept no matter what.

This is New Zealand under this government – they forge ahead in favour of only themselves and businesses.

Tracey pointed out that Maoridom is not in favour of charter schools.  Submissions from Maori were overwhelmingly against.

She pleads and I plead with Maori and Pasifika people to contact their MPs and tell them how you feel.

Even if you do want charters, make sure you tell them what boundaries you expect, what support, what oversight.

If you do not want them, speak up now, because time is running out, and the Maori Party is about to sell you down the river.

Sue Moroney hit the nail on the head when she said “Our kids are being used as guinea pigs,” saying that it wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t already know from the evidence that charter schools do not work.  She asked why the select committee ignored the concerns of Nga Tahu, who do not want charter schools.  She asked why the children of Christchurch are being used in this experiment when they are already in the middle of upheaval and stress.

Why indeed.

Nanaia Mahuta acknowledged the thousands of parents, teachers and others who took the time to make submissions to the select committee.

With over 2000 submissions, just over 70 were for charters, about 30 had no opinion, and the rest were against.  Just read that again:  The Rest Were Against.  And those against came from all quarters, from professors and parents, from teachers and students, and from iwi.

Hone Harawira, Leader of MANA, said charters ”represent a direct attack on kura kaupapa Māori, and on public education generally,” pointing out that  ”successive governments have starved kura kaupapa of funding from the get-go, [yet] they remain one of the most successful educational initiatives for Maori by Māori, in the last 100 years.”   Like many observers, he is aghast at the Maori Party for supporting charter school proposals, saying “The Maori Party should be ashamed for turning their backs on everything that kura kaupapa Maori stands for.”  Source.

So let me close by asking you this.

Who does support charter schools?  And why?

Ask yourself that, and really think about it.  Not on political party lines, but as a Kiwi.

Ask yourself what the motivation for charter schools really is.

Ask “Is this change good for education?”  

~Dianne Khan

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NAPLAN, numeracy and nonsense



It’s time for a chat about NAPLAN. To which suggestion comes back the cry “Dear lord, please, let’s not!”

That’s us: that’s your Maths Masters crying out, desperately wishing to avoid this discussion. But it has to be had. This week a zillion Aussie schoolkids will sit down for theirNAPLAN testing and the question is why?

Yes, there has been no shortage of painful promotion. The Federal Minister for Early Childhood and Youth eagerly spruiks on NAPLAN’s behalf. ACARA, the government body responsible for preparing and analysing the NAPLAN tests, indicates two supposed benefits of the tests: first, as a guide for schools to make improvements; second, as a mechanism of public accountability.

We and others are not convinced. Ignoring the issue of the huge resources employed, the question of obtaining value for time and money, we believe that the accountability aspect of NAPLAN, the naming and effective shaming on the myschool website, is needless and nasty.

However, that is not the debate we wish to re-have. Even accepting as possible the purported applications, there are aspects to NAPLAN that appear to have received almost no proper public discussion: what exactly is being tested, who evaluates the tests and who evaluates the testers?

We last wrote on NAPLAN two years ago. Our central complaint was that the numeracy tests were just that: they were tests of numeracy, a poor and poorly defined substitute for mathematics. We wrote about some glaring gaps in what was tested, the overwhelming focus on (often contrived) applications, the unbelievable decision to permit calculators in the years 7 and 9 tests, and we poked fun at some specific, silly questions.

At the time we thought we’d said enough, that that column would be our last word on NAPLAN. Then, foolishly, we decided to take a peek at the 2012 numeracy tests. We were astonished to discover how difficult it was to take that peek.

ACARA has made it extraordinarily difficult to obtain past NAPLAN tests or any helpful analysis of the tests. Yes, there are “practice tests” and yes, each year ACARA publishes avoluminous report on the outcomes of the tests. But not the tests themselves, nor how students on average performed on specific questions from those tests.

Teachers, if they try hard enough, can usually obtain this information. However, little Johnny Public and his mother have effectively no hope. ACARA has an application process but the process and the assistance offered appear to have been modeled on the Yes Minister Manual for Public Service. (We have applied for some data and at some point, when it’s done, we hope to write about the fun of it all.)

The message, intended or otherwise (and we doubt the “otherwise”), is that the tests should be accepted as a gift from the gods. Unfortunately, at times the gods appear to be crazy.

Consider the following question, which appeared on the year 7 and year 9 numeracy tests in 2012:

The question asked was which of the four figures above “looks identical” after a quarter turn? The grumpy and reasonable answer from one of our colleagues was “all of them”. Still, though the wording is clumsily vague, it’s pretty clear what the question is asking, and about 70 per cent of students nationwide correctly chose the first figure.

However, consider the following question, which appeared on the year 3 and year 5 numeracy tests in 2012:

The students were presented an arrow-shaped “tag”, and the problem was to determine how many tags that “look like this” could be cut out from the pictured sheet of cardboard?

About 20 per cent of year 3 students and 40 per cent of year 5 students gave the intended answer of 10 tags, presumably arranging the tags similar to the picture on the left below.

Unfortunately the tag question is ambiguous. If “look like this” has the same meaning as “looks identical” then the tags would presumably have to be oriented the same as the sample tag, and then a maximum of eight tags could be cut from the cardboard (above, right). Indeed, a significant percentage of students gave eight as their answer.

There’s another, larger issue with the tag question. We assume that the intended approach is to enlarge each tag to a 2 x 4 rectangle and then see how many of those rectangles can be cut out of the cardboard. However, that approach can lead to an incorrect answer.

Imagine the dimensions of the cardboard are 8 x 11, rather than 8 x 10 as given in the question. With the approach described the extra column is of no help, and we can still only fit in 10 tags. However, if we interlace the tags as pictured below then 11 tags will fit.

Now, interlacing does not actually improve the answer for the 8 x 10 grid given in the test question, but of course we don’t know that until we try it. Interlacing is an approach that mustbe considered for a thorough treatment of the question.

The tag question is archetypally bad. The more you understand the intrinsic difficulty of the question the less likely you are to arrive at the correct answer.

It is not our intention to nitpick and we don’t want to make too much out of the above questions. We know how difficult it is to write clear and unambiguous questions, and many of the questions on the 2012 tests are well written and the students’ results are genuinely, depressingly, informative. We are also aware that ACARA has its own evaluation procedures and that each year they attempt to improve on the last.

Nonetheless, there is a genuine and general issue. The above questions may be more clearly problematic but they are by no means uniquely so. There are many questions on the 2012 numeracy tests on which the students performed poorly, and it is often difficult to be sure why. It may be that the students have struggled with basic arithmetic, or it may be that their general reading comprehension is poor.

However, for at least some of the questions, we suspect the major problem is simply the students’ failure to cope with the contrived context and contrived wording of the question. And it must be noted: if the NAPLAN tests consisted of fewer context-based questions and included more straight tests of arithmetic skills, the problem of poorly worded questions would be much less of an issue.

That brings us to the overarching issue: accountability. Not that we expect ACARA, or anyone, to accept us as judges of the NAPLAN tests, and indeed your maths masters don’t even agree: one of us considers the NAPLAN tests to be flawed but to serve a genuine function; the other believes that the tests are so bad that they’re hilarious.

But ACARA is, or at least should be, accountable to the public. When less than 5 per cent of students nationally get a test question correct, the public has a right to know that. They have a right to know the question and they have a right to know how the results from that question are being interpreted. They have a right to question whether the results are a reasonable outcome of subtle test design, an indication of some systemic issue with students’ mathematical skills or knowledge, or simply an example of a poorly written question. Currently, ACARA doesn’t lift a finger to enable any of this to occur.

ACARA is proud to promote the value of accountability when it is teachers and schools that bear the burden and the scrutiny. Whether or not that is appropriate sauce for the goose, it is long past time there was arranged some similar sauce for the gander.


Burkard Polster teaches mathematics at Monash and is the university’s resident mathemagician, mathematical juggler, origami expert, bubble-master, shoelace charmer, and Count von Count impersonator.

Marty Ross is a mathematical nomad. His hobby is smashing calculators with a hammer.

Can poor children learn?

by Tim Slekar

Reposted from At The Chalkface.

By now the poverty does or doesn’t matter dichotomy is really starting to get old.  Anyone that truly cares about helping children from low socio-economic environments succeed in school knows that all children(even poor ones) can learn.  It’s absolutely ridiculous when education reformers insist that those of us “resisting” are claiming that “poor kids can’t learn.”

In fact, do a GOOGLE search.  Type in “poor kids can’t learn.”  Amazing what the results show isn’t it?

Along with the three posts above, it is almost impossible to find anyone “resisting” education reform having said those words.  In fact the “poor kids can’t learn” bullsh!t is typically spread by faith-based reformers while decontextualizing a comment such as, “students that live in poverty come to school with challenges to learning in traditional academic settings.”

In fact, if you read all three of the above posts it is the reformer(s) that declare  ”you just said poor kids can’t learn.”  No!  That’s not what was said.  What was said was that poverty matters.  That’s it.  Not a single claim of a lack of intelligence on the part of children living in poverty.

So why bring this up now?  I mean those of us resisting education reform already are quite aware of how poverty “influences” the learning situations of children.  None of us said, “poor kids can’t learn.”  So can’t we move on? Maybe. Maybe not.

Just last week Mr. Common Core himself (David Coleman)said,

“We have to get serious with each other. It is not okay to say that since poverty matters so much we should use that as a reason to evade reform. It’s not responsible,” Coleman said.

This utterance perplexes me.  It seems as if even Mr. Coleman understands that “poverty matters.”  But what the hell does it mean to recognize that and then demand more “reform?”  Is he saying, “Look, I get it. Poverty sucks.  But we (reformers) have to keep up the pressure. We just can’t let them win! That would not be “responsible.” ?

Huh? If “poverty matters” and the current reforms aren’t working, why would we continue to bash poor kids over the heads with education reforms?  In fact isn’t that IRRESPONSIBLE?

This entire poverty vs reform discussion needs to end and I am going to try to do it now.

In June of 2011 and June of 2012, I along with students and colleagues traveled to Rwanda to work with orphan children.  We had a pretty simple job.  Use grant money to get as many orphans through a health clinic as possible and then find schools that were willing to educate the orphans.  In 2011 we were only successful at getting 200 orphans through a health clinic.  92% of the orphans tested positive for parasites and other infectious diseases.  All were treated with the proper medial attention and given medication.  However, we just didn’t have enough time to find school placements for any of the orphans.

In 2012 I went back to Rwanda.  This time we would work exclusively with a school and try to secure school placements for some of the orphan children.  While meeting with the administration of the Rwandan school we were shocked to find out that the school would not take any of the orphan children.  Admission to the school required  a guarantee that each child had a sponsor willing to pay $14 dollars a month.

Huh? But why?  Don’t you want to help these children?  Look we put them through a health clinic last year and that was the extent of our grant money.  We don’t have $14 a month for each child.  Can’t you just take them?  Don’t these orphan children deserve a chance to go to school?

That was the dialogue in my head and out loud.  The school administrators looked at us with a slightly confused look on their faces.  Again we asked why can’t you take these orphan children?  The answer, very bluntly was “sick and hungry children can’t learn.”

My colleagues and I stood speechless for moment.  At some point one of us managed to ask, “what?” as if we didn’t hear the answer the first time.  Again one of the administrators reminded us that “sick and hungry children can’t learn.”  He then went on to explain that since June of 2011 all of the children that went through the health clinic were probably “sick” again since there was no continued care.  He explained that $14 dollars a month would be used to pay for year round health care, proper nutrition, and adequate clothing.  These three things were “essentials” if children were to have a chance to succeed in school.

After the shock and more time discussing the issue, we came to understand what the Rwandan administrators were saying.  It was still hard to accept but it was hard to argue.  The Rwandan school only had limited resources.  The Rwandan administrators were only willing to use those resources with children that were properly fed, free from parasites and infectious diseases, and properly clothed.

Maybe “sick and hungry kids can’t learn” was a bit harsh.  But were they wrong?

How is it possible for a developing third world country to understand that “poverty matters?”

Someone has to say it!poor

Poor kids can learn! When they’re not hungry!

Poor kids can learn! When they’re not sick!

Poor kids can learn! When they’re properly clothed.

When education reform means that we are willing to address these three facts then sign me up.  Until then…?