I had a strange experience this week. A letter written by three teachers from St Paul’s School about this week’s NAPLAN testing had gone viral. My phone started ringing hot. It had captured the interest of parents and educators from across the globe. Media outlets and radio stations were calling for interviews and comments.

Pity most of the journalists hadn’t done their homework. The letter is a fabulous one but it originated from St Paul’s Primary School in Gracemere, central Queensland, not from St Paul’s School, Brisbane. All credit to those three teachers for pointing out that children are far more than a number on a page. Fortunately a UK paper got it right.

The letter that went viral

NAPLAN is certainly a brilliant diagnostic tool, not only for providing teachers and parents with a snap shot of how their child is going in the crucial areas of literacy and numeracy, but it also for providing great information to each school, helping them to analyse their programs and plug the gaps. The problem comes when the results are used to compare schools’ performance.

This leads me to question what the political agenda behind the My School website with the publication and comparison of school on school NAPLAN performance is. If it is about forcing a school improvement agenda it isn’t working, that is clear, the data shows this. When leaders don’t know how to lead they use fear as a way to force their agenda and get quick results. This tactic (comparing schools under the guise of ‘accountability and transparency’) would seem to be a fear strategy which has lead to undue pressure, teaching to the test, cheating and an imbalance in our educational priorities. If you don’t believe me, read the evidence and commentary about similar tactics in Professor Yong Zhao’s book, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?”

There are far better ways to improve the quality of education and our schools. These include: improving leadership right from the top (politicians, education department heads, principals); and, leaders supporting teachers to grow professionally and improve their practice for the benefit of the whole child. This can only be achieved through high levels of trust. I have no problem with accountability and transparency if it is used productively to build trust and improve practice.

The problem isn’t the NAPLAN test, the problem is how the data is distributed and then used as a tactic to push a school improvement agenda. There are no winners with a strategy such as this.

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