Testing democracy: NAPLAN produces culture of compliance

School is the place where questioning the status quo should take place - but not in a high-stakes test. AAP

There has been widespread and well-justified critique of the NAPLAN tests in Australian schools. Concerns have focused on the ways the testing severely narrows the school curriculum, compounds disadvantage and creates undue anxieties for young students. Current panic about this year’s writing test is telling of the broader social and political consequences of a back-to-basics curriculum underpinned by a high-stakes standardised testing system.

The poorly worded question set for the writing test, “which law or rule would you make better in your view?”, has been criticised for being too difficult for students. Teachers felt they had been ambushed by the complexity of the question when they had been preparing students on the technical aspects of writing a narrative or persuasive text. The outcome was that some students did not attempt the question and received zero marks for writing.

One particular response to this year’s writing question compels reflection about the purpose and future of our schooling system. To ask such a question has been seen as “inappropriate” and “ludicrous”, especially for “children being brought up in law-abiding families, where they are told that rules are important”.

Arguably, it should be the driving purpose of education to ask such questions, albeit not within the constraints of a standardised test. As the Melbourne Declaration sets out, a key goal for Australian schooling is to produce “active and informed citizens”. Denying the possibility of critical thinking – for example, examining issues of justice in rules and laws – threatens these broader goals of active citizenship and engaged democratic participation.

The end of critical thinking?

The content of the NAPLAN writing tests has always been secondary to the technical aspects of writing that students are expected to bring to the task. This is a function of the fact that the same question is posed to all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. This year, however, the question demanded both control over the genre as well as critical thinking.

Debates about “which law or rule would you make better in your view?” – and the critical engagement it requires – would be sadly unfamiliar to many Australian students who were being prepared for a test of their technical writing.

When schooling is focused so heavily on preparing for high-stakes tests, it is not surprising that teachers have to resort to “defensive pedagogies” – teaching strategies that ensure good examination results. This is made worse by relentless preoccupations with “teacher effectiveness”, where performance is measured by student outcomes. Teachers do more than teach to the test, but the scope for this is diminished under high-stakes scrutiny.

Many students, especially from minority groups and disadvantaged communities, would be ready and motivated to discuss this year’s writing question. After all, it is a question that invites reflection on matters of fairness. However, this important opportunity is lost when it is framed within a high-pressure test that forces defensive pedagogies.

Narrowing a child’s education into a high-stakes test has social consequences. Flickr/Cocoen Daily Photos, CC BY

The social costs of NAPLAN

The social costs of such a narrowed education are profound. Not only does it fail to encourage students to develop tools for participating thoughtfully as “active and informed citizens”, it also makes it acceptable for education to be unquestioning about the status quo.

The appeal that children from “law-abiding families” would find it particularly difficult to engage critically with laws and rules reveals something about the kind of citizen we want our education system to foster. Should critique be seen as inappropriate? Should compliance be privileged over change? Even in the face of inequality?

As one young child was reported saying with respect to the NAPLAN question,

When I thought about all the rules I know I thought that they are really good ones. So I didn’t have anything to say about it.

Here is where the narrowing of education by NAPLAN can suit dominant social groups. Research has long shown how schooling systems reproduce the social order in which the middle-classes benefit. This has been exacerbated in recent times by the repositioning of education as a private good, where educational products and services can be bought to ensure individual success.

In this context, winners have no reason to question rules and laws, and losers needn’t be given a voice.

The displacement of critical thinking by NAPLAN positions schools as instruments of social control, rather than being sites for creativity, debate and change. The stakes are particularly high for the disadvantaged.

For as long as this is the case, it will be hard for schools to encourage students to meaningfully consider the questions fundamental to democracy and justice. Questions such as, “which law or rule would you make better in your view?”

Editor’s note: Arathi will be on hand for an Author Q&A session between 2 and 3pm tomorrow (August 21). Post any questions about NAPLAN and education in the comment section below.