NAPLAN testing for our students is over for 2011 and, whilst I could use this as a chance to vent/debate/rant about the merits and pitfalls of standarised testing, I’m sure plenty of my colleagues will do that for me. So, rather than spend this post raising issues such as the appropriateness of the data, the validity of it is a measurement tool etc, I’ve chosen to question another aspect of the testing that I don’t think all teachers consider in quite the same way.
You see, I administered the testing this year for some of our Year 9 students and, whilst the group I was supervising was exceptionally well behaved and followed all of the directions they were given to the letter, the whole process still managed to get me riled up. It might seem a tad silly, but the aspect of NAPLAN that made me the angriest had nothing to do with the measurement of student performance – it was the demand that every teacher deliver the test in exactly the same way. Not the timing, or the format or anything like that – it was following a pre-written script to the letter when explaining instructions and procedures to the students.
A lot of current educational thinking places real value on the establishment of relationships with our students. A large part of my day is not spent delivering lessons or preparing learning activities, but rather involves talking to the kids about what they want to achieve, what they want to learn, how they would like school to be better/different – things that help me engage them not only when they walk into a classroom, but also when we encounter each other on the playground or (shock horror!) at the shops or in the community. And, when the relationships we build are strong, respectful and built on trust, students value their interactions with you and value their learning.
As professionals who use what they have learned through formal education and (more importantly) experience, teachers know how to get the most positive results from their students because they have strong relationships with them. Our students learn a bit about who we are, and they build expectations about how we’ll behave and what we expect.
However, delivering NAPLAN requires us to follow a script when the kids enter our class to begin the test. We are instructed not to deviate in any way from the provided text, and it contains no emotion, is uninteresting and designed to ensure a common and consistent experience for all students in the country. Every student will hear exactly the same instructions, and no student is therefore advantaged or disadvantaged. So the theory goes.
I understand the reasoning behind it all, don’t get me wrong – and I see how following the procedure prevents teachers from inadvertently giving some students assistance that others don’t receive, but I question the justification of such a need. Teachers are professionals – we are all educated, have chosen to pursue a career in a field aware that we’re not going to be rolling in cash or working short hours, and know and understand the purpose of testing on this scale (and the importance of being fair and equitable). Does ACARA have so little faith in the profession that it doesn’t trust us to do the right thing by our students?
If the data was used for purely diagnostic purposes (which is what it is designed to do) so that we can assess how our kids are progressing and can tailor our educational programs to address their needs, we’d have no reason to “artificially inflate” our students’ results – we’d be doing them a disservice if we did. It also wouldn’t matter whether our students were, as a cohort, above or below “the line” – it’s an average, and therefore it is IMPOSSIBLE for ALL students to be above it! Even comparisons of “statistically similar” schools will lead to some kids being below the benchmark, purely because of how it is calculated. And, if we know which kids need the additional support, that data can be used to help us address their needs through better resourcing, investment and potentially through action research.
I may appear to have drifted off topic a bit, so let’s reel this all back in…
Let’s consider another occupation that performs diagnostic analyses on a regular basis – the medical profession. Every day, GPs will have their patients visit for a myriad of reasons – some for checkups, some to collect results from tests, others with some sort of discomfort they are experiencing, and so on. I’m not sure about you, but if my interactions with my doctor involved them stepping through a scripted, pre-determined text that failed to acknowledge our relationship, my needs and personality and my medical history, I probably wouldn’t go back. I can also guarantee I’d be less likely to actually open up about any problems or concerns I may have, especially if they were embarrassing or awkward. Why? Because I wouldn’t be comfortable. And my failure to feel comfortable/relaxed, and the inability for me to develop trust in that relationship, is going to be negative for both me and for my doctor – me because I get poor medical care, and for my doctor because he is unable to do his job effectively due to the constraints of the procedure.
This wouldn’t happen in the medical profession – in fact, the many doctors I have met/spoken to/visited in my life so far have all had their differences. And some I haven’t liked. I like my doctor to be direct – I don’t want them to soften the blow if there’s something wrong, and I want the most practical and direct advice they can give me. I don’t want them to be consoling if the news is bad, I just want to know what the next step is. You might be different, and if you are, then you wouldn’t go to my doctor because you wouldn’t be comfortable. Or you would go to my doctor, but his response to you would be very different to the one he gives to me.
And this works, because we all respond to people and data differently. Doctors are expected to use their professional judgement to identify how best to establish a relationship of trust and respect with their patients. They’ll use the strategies they have developed to do it, and we accept that they are capable of doing so.
Our kids want to know that when we’re in the classroom with them, we’re there to support them and all that they do. They know they don’t have to be the brightest kid in the class to have our respect, nor do they need to get everything right all the time. What matters most to us is that they continue to learn and develop a passion for learning that they’ll carry with them when they leave us to move onto the next phase of their lives. If every time something “matters” we turn into unfeeling, uncaring robots that all say exactly the same thing and stop being the people they know and trust, how does that make them feel?
Are teachers not professional enough to respond appropriately in such a “serious” situation? Is that the fear? That we are unable to make good judgements about what is best for our students and for the outcomes of the testing process? If so, then I find it both disheartening and infuriating that society does not respect educators enough to give us credit for the work we do. If it’s not, then why is the benchmark for professionalism in various occupations different?