One of the positive moves in increasing the transparency of the performance of schools in the last few years, for parents and the community, has been the move to publish the results of national literacy and numeracy tests of primary and secondary school students. The first element of this was to have single national tests as opposed to the previous state-based tests, allowing a more direct comparison of results between states, and the second (and probably more important) move is to publish the results of the national tests in some way. (Disclosure – I worked for a consultant constructing numeracy questions for the initial round of the national testing.)
Legislation has recently passed through the NSW Parliament allowing the publication of results in some way. While there has been some kerfuffle with an Greens/Opposition amendment to the legislation, the core idea that there should be more transparency appears to be widely supported.
It may be thought that transparency about school performance may allow parents more information to choose a school for their kids to attend, and allow parents to put pressure on low-performing schools to perform better. It may also be that publishing this information may lead to be self-discipline on schools to improve their performance. While the winds of transparency may be bracing, it is better that parents have information about school performance if this results in kids having a better education.
The key point is that kids should have the best education possible and it appears deleterious to kids for the test results to be opaque.
However, Clover Moore MP, the member for Sydney, spoke against the legislation when it came before the NSW Parliament, on the oft-mentioned principles that:
- education is about more than what can be tested
- schools would tend to teach to the test
- there are practical problems with comparing school performance
- schools in lower socioeconomic areas will be overrepresented in lower rankings and that students will suffer from poor self-esteem,
- opportunities for young people in already disadvantaged communities will be reduced.
- publishing performance information on schools will worsen the gaps in achievement between rich and poor, and along racial, religious and ethnic grounds, creating winners and losers in schools
- manipulating the data could damage communities that are overrepresented in the media in a negative light.
These arguments have been used against making information about school performance more transparent for a long time. While attractive, they lead to the intellectually dishonest conclusion that school performance cannot even be evaluated let alone compared to the performance of other schools.
It is true that education cannot be encapsulated through test results, but the results may allow some conclusions to be drawn, particularly when the results are aggregated over large numbers of students (e.g. in a school). On that basis, there should be transparency of the national testing results. Ms Moore’s approach is likely to be less positive for kids than the legislation offers.
Unfortunately, this appears to be yet another example of a policy position by Ms Moore that is either substantially a popular policy or which advances the interests of sectional groups (in this case to the disadvantage of kids) rather than being informed by careful analysis. Fortunately the legislation was passed.
For completeness, Ms Moore’s speech on the legislation was as follows:
The Education Amendment (Publication of School Results) Bill 2009 will require the publication of individual reports with information about a school’s performance in comparison with other schools with similar characteristics. Information will include national test results, attainment rates, student population characteristics, teaching staff and financial resources. I understand that the Government’s aim is to improve schools’ performance, but the education community is really alarmed over the impact that publishing performance data will have on education and on schools, particularly in lower socioeconomic communities. The Teachers Federation tells me that 16 education associations have expressed grave concern about this approach, including the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, the Australian Secondary Principals Association, the Catholic Secondary Principals Association and the Independent Education Union of Australia, as well as parents, principals and teachers’ organisations.
While the bill aims to publish comparative data between similar schools, establishing groups of similar schools is overly simplistic. Each school has a unique situation that cannot be meaningfully compared. I share the concern that schools in lower socioeconomic areas will be overrepresented in lower rankings and that students will suffer from poor self-esteem, and opportunities for young people in already disadvantaged communities will be reduced. The Teachers Federation points out that publishing performance information on schools will worsen the gaps in achievement between rich and poor, and along racial, religious and ethnic grounds, creating winners and losers in schools rather than creating equal opportunities within our communities. I am also concerned about how manipulating this kind of simplistic data can damage communities that are overrepresented in the media in a negative light.
While the Government’s argument is that schools will aim to lift their game and achieve better results, the nature of this kind of simplistic information will create competitive markets in schools, making it difficult for lower-ranking schools to improve their performance. The Teachers Federation points out that the United Kingdom experience with leagues tables reduces the diversity in education because the curriculum’s focus on tested criteria increases, to achieve a better rank. In conclusion, education is about so much more than just what can be tested; schools should foster creativity and community values. I am concerned about this approach, and I call on the Government to undertake a comprehensive review of the implications of this bill and report it to the House.