Plibersek’s pledge to raise the teaching ATAR is nonsense

Our latest published education policy analysis looks at the federal Shadow Minister for Education, Tanya Plibersek’s proposal to raise the required marks for teaching degrees to the top 30% of school leavers. We argue that this is not just wrongheaded, but regressive, as it will shut out more people from diverse socio-economic, cultural and language backgrounds from the teaching profession. Sign up for a free trial at Crikey to read the finished piece, or read our draft here:

As Federal Shadow Minister for Education Tanya Plibersek dared universities to defy her plan to raise the required minimum Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score for graduating high school students aspiring to become teachers, countless practicing teachers around the country shook our heads in disbelief and disgust over her disingenuous political posturing.

There is no way Plibersek could be under any illusion that there is a research basis to this policy. For someone apparently so committed to academic standards, she has not offered a shred of evidence that raising the required marks for teaching degrees to the top 30% of school leavers will actually improve the quality of teaching in schools. Moreover, when the Australian Council of Deans of Education respectfully explained that there is no such evidence, she refused to back down, hitting back with the school yard taunt “try me”.

Even more disappointing is that President of the Australian Education Union (AEU) Correna Haythorpe rushed in to give her public endorsement of Plibersek’s shameful policy. Teachers see straight through Labor’s adversarial blame game and are fed up with AEU leadership for failing to stand up for policies that genuinely support teachers and improve our education system.

The fixation on teacher quality as a solution to Australia’s declining results in international standardised tests – such the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – is in itself wrongheaded. It overlooks strong evidence of the persistent link between students’ socio-economic status and performance on standardised tests. A 2017 report on Australia’s PISA results showed students from the highest quartile of socioeconomic background perform on average 3 year levels higher than students from the lowest quartile.

Thus, if Labor are so concerned about the declining test results of Australian school students, why don’t they turn their attention to developing policies that address the growing inequality in Australian society and socio-economic stratification in our school system?

Then, if they still want to talk about improving teacher quality, why not talk to teachers about what is holding us back from providing a first-class education for our students? Research has consistently found excessive workloads to be amongst the top reasons why so many teachers leave the profession after just a few years of practice. Insufficient funding is the main cause of staff and resource shortages in our schools, which lead to teachers being overburdened with administrative duties.

Trends towards an ever-increasing focus on standardised tests and punitive monitoring of teacher performance have also proven extremely demotivating for teachers. These trends devalue the proven importance of teacher-student relationships to learning and constrain us from using our professional judgement to devise targeted learning programs for our students.

Addressing the real, pressing issues of teachers would go a long way towards attracting the best possible candidates to teaching degrees. Yet, ironically, through policies that place undue emphasis on teacher “quality”, Labor politicians have been key instigators of teacher bashing in the media, tacitly licencing parents and students to treat teachers with disrespect. Is this how they expect to make teaching a more appealing career choice for talented graduates?

There is even more sad irony in the fact that this policy is based on a concept that both research and teacher experience tell us is false – that a person’s capacity to learn the skills required for teaching can be determined by their ATAR score. In fact, the specific academic skills imperfectly tested in high-stakes Year 12 exams are only a small part of a much broader skillset required for teaching.

It is the proper role of teacher educators, not politicians, to determine prospective students’ suitability to fulfill the requirements of a teaching degree. Most teacher training courses now require prospective students to complete a range of assessments as part of their selection process, from general intellectual aptitude and social capabilities tests to personal statements about their motivations for pursuing teaching as a profession.

While these measures may not be perfect, they better reflect the breadth of what it takes to be a teacher and the reality that the best teachers will often come to the profession after fulfilling careers in other industries, bringing with them the immeasurable benefits of varied life experiences.

The most disturbing aspect of Labor’s policy is that higher ATAR score requirements for teaching courses would reinforce the language and cultural bias of the education system. ATAR scores, as much as standardised test results, sort students according to class and cultural background. Thus, the people most likely to be shut out from the teaching profession are those with language backgrounds other than English and those who have experienced socio-economic disadvantage.

With much evidence to suggest that students learn better when their teachers come from a similar cultural background, it is sad to see Labor promoting a policy that will make it even harder to increase the cultural and linguistic diversity of the teaching profession.

Labor finds it easier to blame universities for their overenrolled teaching courses than to create policies that alleviate the pressures they now face from massive funding cuts. It prefers to blame teachers for declining test results rather than accept the real socio-economic reasons for this decline.  

It’s time for Labor to provide adequate funding to support disadvantaged students and look to build a teacher workforce that enables schools (and universities) to reflect the cultural diversity of the communities we serve. Teachers need the AEU to support us in holding Labor to account so we can achieve the best possible education system for our students.

MESEJ endorses Rank and File Educators as our preferred candidates in AEU Victoria election

Statement from Rank and File Educators


We want the voice of rank and file members heard.

As the attacks on public education and all workers escalate, we need a stronger AEU that is more willing to take collective action.


If elected (and even if not elected!) we will fight for an AEU that:

– Says “No” to NAPLAN, MySchool and all testing tools and educational fads that force us into competition for data.

– Is not afraid to take industrial action to win fair funding, equal pay, smaller classes and more preparation time. The future of public education depends on us winning and exercising our right to strike, and ensuring government funds go to public, not private systems.

– Fights for trust, respect, and control over school decisions for educators and support staff. Our union must stand up to principals and managers (including AEU principals) who bully and undermine union won conditions.

– Stands up against racism, sexism and homophobia in our schools and society. While the right is on the offensive against African students, Muslims, refugees and anti-bullying programs for LGBTI students, education unionists must act.

– Actively campaigns and engages with schools to achieve sufficient funding and policy reforms to make schools inclusive of all students, particularly Indigenous students who experience unacceptably high rates of school exclusion and incarceration

Call for Union Action – Teachers Say No To NAPLAN

Thanks to everyone who signed the “Say No to NAPLAN” statement. Our statement got plenty of media coverage during the week of NAPLAN, and state and federal ministers had to respond to our demands with increasing defensiveness. 


Channel 9:

3AW radio:

There is momentum building against NAPLAN, but both Labor and Liberal leaders have made it clear they plan to keep NAPLAN and MySchool, at best tinkering with it through a review, at worst replacing it with a more intensive testing regime, like Gonski’s proposed “tool”.

NAPLAN results start to be released in August. It is important that we escalate the campaign during this period, as political attention refocuses on the issue. We are calling on the branches of the AEU and IEU to mobilise members in a collective action during August/September to call for the end of NAPLAN and the MySchool website.

Already the Inner West region of Victorian branch of the AEU passed a resolution calling for this action, and more resolutions like this will help keep the issue alive amongst union members, and demonstrate to the leadership that there is strong rank and file support for union action around this issue.

Are you able to pass a motion like this one in your sub branch or regional meeting?

Motion for union action to stop NAPLAN and MySchool: 

“This meeting supports the call for AEU (or IEU) to mobilise members for an action during the release of NAPLAN results in August/ September 2018, to demand the end of NAPLAN and the MySchool website.”

Please let us know if you do pass this motion, so we can keep a track of how much support is building.


Media Release – Teachers Say No To NAPLAN and MySchool

83 educators, including 57 primary and secondary teachers in Australian schools, have signed a statement calling on the Federal Government to “end NAPLAN” and “shut down the MySchool website”. Full statement is published here:

Their public criticism of education policy comes at the risk of reprimand from education departments for breaching public sector codes of conduct. The teachers are also encouraging parents to withdraw their children from NAPLAN as part of a campaign to end the NAPLAN testing regime.

Victorian secondary teacher and co-author of the statement Fiona Taylor says, “As teachers, we can see first-hand the disastrous impact of NAPLAN. Even state education ministers are now conceding it’s a faulty test, but they’re still not recognizing the real problem with NAPLAN. The entire approach of reducing students’ learning to standardised scores and enforcing competition between schools has poisoned our education system.”

Victorian primary teacher and co-author Ella Ryan says she is not hopeful that Gonski’s “Growth to Achievement” recommendations can correct the problems created by NAPLAN. “NAPLAN has driven a data obsession in education, and Gonski’s recommendations continue that. As a teacher, I want to encourage deep thinking and a love of learning. But instead, I’m caught in a system geared toward superficial data-chasing strategies, with the constant pressure to teach to tests.

“Teachers need trust and time so that we can meet the needs of our students at a human scale. We need to be respected as the people who can make nuanced assessments and useful interventions. Standardised tests should not be prioritised over that important work.”

The statement describes the way “(r)esources are diverted away from year levels, subjects and programs that are not considered to have a high impact on the data. The pressure to improve test scores also promotes a culture of teaching to the test and countless hours wasted on practice tests.”

Victorian secondary teacher George Lilley says that the impact of NAPLAN on students’ mental health is particularly troubling: “At our school, we have major problems with student anxiety and depression. These tests add to that anxiety and remove the time that teachers have to address individual student problems. Another compulsory standardized test won’t improve this and will probably add more stress.”

The statement also draws attention to the way inequality in education is cemented through NAPLAN test scores: “The MySchool website puts terrible pressure on parents to “shop” for the school with the best NAPLAN scores and avoid “bad” schools, while federal and state governments evade their responsibility to fully resource every public school to teach their local students. This market model of schooling means local diversity is no longer reflected in schools; instead students are increasingly segregated according to socio-economic status.”

Teachers Say No To NAPLAN – Sign our open letter

With the dreaded NAPLAN fast approaching, some teachers from MESEJ have written a sign on statement – an opportunity for teachers to say “no” to NAPLAN.

We invite you to read our statement and sign if you agree. You can select to only publish your name if more than 20, or more than 50, other teachers sign on as well, so you can be assured you will not be a lone voice.

There’s a lot of pressure building against NAPLAN this year from unions and state governments. But there’s nothing out there yet offering a teacher’s perspective on how fundamentally corrosive the NAPLAN regime has been in education.

If we get a good number of teachers signing on it could be a significant blow to NAPLAN/MySchool credibility, and help deepen the criticism, so that it’s not just about getting a better test, but getting rid of the test entirely. This statement could also prepare the ground for some other actions to stop the NAPLAN madness.

Please share this statement widely amongst your teacher friends so we can gain strength in numbers!

Why are the Liberals so terrified of our schools?

For our first workshop this year, we decided to meet up and analyse the Victorian Liberal Nationals School Education Values Statement. 

Today,  the critique we wrote together was published in The Age, online and in print (page 33).

Here is the original version of the article with hyperlinks:


Guy dreams of discipline, data and indoctrination – but where is Labor’s alternative?

When Victorian Opposition leader Matthew Guy tries to whip up a moral panic about the state of our education system it is only so he can propose kicking it further down an authoritarian path.

The Victorian Liberal Nationals School Education Values Statement released last month points to the stagnation of literacy and numeracy test results as evidence of the breakdown of “discipline”, “teaching the basics” and “instilling sound values”.

Guy’s draconian plans – which include installing police in our ten most “high-risk” schools, abolishing the Safe Schools program, pumping up parochial Australian nationalism and stamping out celebration of diversity in the curriculum – are bound to have a devastating impact on the educational opportunities of our most disadvantaged and marginalised students.

But if Guy’s fear mongering about falling standards touches a nerve for some, it is because we really do have good cause to be worried about our education system.

The AEU’s response to the Coalition’s statement, published this week in The Age, gets it right when it champions the great work teachers and support staff can do when they are adequately funded and trusted. However, as teachers currently working in schools, we were disappointed by the failure of the AEU to address the reasons why this trust and support for teachers is rapidly disintegrating.

The plateauing NAPLAN results Guy refers to are a reflection of a much deeper crisis in our schools, the cause of which remains both Liberal and Labor policy – the thoroughly discredited market-based model of education, which research suggests has been a key factor in the recent flatlining of student results.  

Guy claims billions of government dollars spent over the last 15-20 years have done nothing to improve educational standards. Frankly, many teachers would agree, although not for the reasons that Guy suggests.

In the first place, public schools have not seen the majority of funding increases. Between 2006-07 and 2015-16 government funding to public schools increased by around 23%. In the same period, government spending on private schools increased by 42%.

This madness is justified as governments supporting parent choice in the marketplace of educational options. The Liberals’ not-so-invisible hand reached peak corruption last year when the Turnbull government legislated to federally fund 80% of private schools’ basic needs (regardless of their capacity to charge fees many times this amount), whilst funding only 20% of government schools basic needs.

But the problem of marketisation runs deeper. Public schools have been set in competition not just with private schools, but also with each other. We have had nearly 10 years of Labor’s MySchool website, which encourages parents to play the school system like the stock market. Low scores are punished with low enrolments, as privileged families flock to high performing schools, and the least socially mobile remain at schools with the least resources to support them.

As a result, when public schools in Victoria have received meagre funding increases, these are too often wasted on programs that principals think will boost scores and reputation – even if they undermine real learning. Despite plenty of evidence that streaming actually reduces student achievement, select entry programs are breaking out like algae plagues around the state. As are uniform policies that mimic private schools in pettiness and pricing.

There are so many commercial consultants offering to sell schools magic bullet strategies for lifting literacy and numeracy results that the Department of Education and Training has developed a “preferred suppliers list” to help principals choose between them.

These data merchants are wreaking educational havoc; their trade relies on principals remaining in perpetual suspicion of teachers’ competence. “Coaches” at my school are interrupting excellent teachers in front of their classes, mid lesson, to tell them they aren’t implementing the right strategy for the moment.

Teachers across Victoria’s public schools waste hours and hours of precious preparation time reformatting lesson and unit documents to fit each new guru’s formula – only for the model to be replaced at the behest of the next guru. And whoever the consultant is, teachers are encouraged to see their students as data points on an array of commercial, internal and external tests.

Education market ideologues like Matthew Guy (and sadly, Labor’s James Merlino) are hostile to funding preparation time for teachers to plan to the individual needs of their students, and craft bespoke lessons to engage and challenge everyone.

The kind of education that starts with the students, not the test, is particularly terrifying to conservatives like Guy. He is so disturbed that teachers could tell our students that LGBTIQ people and same-sex attraction are nothing to fear that he would axe the Safe Schools anti-bullying program. He is so petrified of students learning that Indigenous and non-“Western” people have profoundly shaped our world that he would cut non-compulsory curriculum references to them. What a nightmare for Guy, that we might teach students that literacy and mathematics are powerful tools for understanding and changing society; he would rather we keep our eyes on the “basics”, i.e. test scores.

The apex of Guy’s fearful vision is his call for police in schools. It suits his agenda perfectly to stigmatise and threaten young people who are being fleeced of a world-class education, rather than rethink the marketised mess that is leaving teachers and students demoralised and angry.

Teachers are appalled by the Liberals scapegoating our most disadvantaged students. But in order to truly defend them, we must also fight to stop the marketisation of our schools. We must demand that Labor breaks with MySchool and NAPLAN and starts funding a public education system that trusts and resources teachers.

Philosophy for Children: Opportunities for Radical Education


5 December 2017


Kids and Philosophy

Apparently there are professional philosophers and educational theorists who think that kids can’t do philosophy.

This proposition is a good stimulus for reflection. It begs a whole lot of questions. Here are some:

What is philosophy? What is it for? How is it done? Why can’t children do it? Why can adults do it? What does philosophy do for people? What does it do to people? What does it do for philosophers?

Philosophers disagree about the answers to these questions. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. Practitioners of Philosophy for Children (P4C) have their own answers to these questions; and these answers indicate that children can, indeed, practice philosophy.


Community of Inquiry

On the last MESEJ seminar of 2017, Bonnie Zuidland gave us an opportunity to explore P4C’s answers to these questions. P4C, originally developed by Matthew Lipman, draws heavily from the inquiry pedagogy of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey.

Central to this approach is the community of inquiry – Bonnie presented it to us as a series of steps that allow students to collaborate in a philosophical process.

  1. Teacher presents a stimulus (scenarios, quotes from philosophers, videos, songs, riddles, poems etc)
  2. Students ask questions in response to the stimulus; teacher lists those questions
  3. Students sort questions into categories
  4. Students choose a question to focus upon
  5. “Suggestion bombing” – brainstorming answers to the chosen question.
  6. Analysis and evaluation of the answers that have been proposed

I’ve already modelled the first two steps. I did so in order to give you a feel for how Bonnie conducted the seminar. We did not follow this process precisely, but we were offered stimuli and invited to discuss them – for instance, we began by being asked to distinguish the following three terms: ‘teacher’, ‘ educator’, ‘facilitator.’ This stimulated us to discuss our investments, convictions and presuppositions regarding what we do. It also called upon us to listen to one another, to actively engage and respond to the contributions of others. This is no easy task, but it is essential to the practice.



I sometimes get this feeling that philosophy is represented in our culture as the practice of hapless fools. Philosophers don’t do anything, they don’t make anything. They don’t have any proper skills. They just waffle about in their naïve bubble, spouting irrelevant nonsense about vapid ‘ thought experiments’. That sometimes feels like the zeitgeist to me. But I also believe that it is a true representation of some philosophers and some ways of doing philosophy. As someone who has spent many years in the discipline, I make this confession with a touch of shame.

But I only feel shame because I know philosophy as something else. For me, philosophy is a rigorous discipline, replete with transformative techniques and insights. Philosophy is not a site of specialled esotericism but a tool which cultivates suspicion, modesty, attention and patience. It is a way of trying to make sense of our reality as a whole – not a key to knowing everything, but a key for making sense of the things that come our way.



You need to be wary of philosophy, and you need to be wary of this presentation of philosophy. Many philosophers are wary of philosophy, and many have (paradoxically) refused the discipline in order to offer philosophical critiques of the discipline.

It is worth exploring one example that came up for us.

There is a certain way of doing philosophy (but not the only way, not by far), that takes philosophy as the free and unimpeded sharing of ideas in a safe and neutral space. This pretence of free dialogue obscures the lived reality of complex and multifocal power relations. We perceive and understand ourselves and others through the mediation of these relations. And all this keeps happening through words, bodies, institutions and places.

Words do things, as do the ways that we occupy space. The things they do are never neutral or free. So we are never mere equals when we sit down in order to make sense of an issue.

The same applies for children in the classroom. What if students generate racist, ableist, queerphobic or sexist questions? Should the teacher encourage this, allowing students to explore it and (hopefully) find reason to refute it? Or should the teacher weigh in, closing down the discussion or subtly shifting the path of the discussion? Should all questions be respected as equally valid? Even if the consequence of this is the normalisation and obscuration of violent presuppositions? Is there a middle ground? One which respects earnest engagement but intervenes into dangerous lines of inquiry? And is it better to have these discussions in class rather than the playground?

We did not find answers to these questions. But we intend to keep trying. Such questions point to challenges that are present in all classroom settings, irrespective of the ages of students or the discipline in question.

Moving Beyond Despair in Climate Education

14 November 2017

By Mandy Pritchard

Climate change is often communicated in terms of distant, abstract scientific projections about global temperature increases, sea level rise, and its impact on the frequency and severity of natural disasters, and on the flipside, the political, governance, individual or technological ‘solutions’ to these environmental catastrophes. Within these narratives, the emotional impact of climate change rarely gets a mention.

As a result, we are not often asked to consider the psychological toll taken on those directly in the firing line of our changing climate. Even less frequently are we given scope to examine the emotional impact of climate change on relatively privileged people concerned for the future of the planet and humanity, as we process the actual and anticipated events and phenomena unfolding around us.

So, it was a rare and welcome opportunity to be able to discuss this important issue at the MESEJ workshop Moving Beyond Despair in Climate Education facilitated by Blanche Verlie – an environmental educator at RMIT University and PhD candidate examining hope and despair in environmental education – and Fiona Taylor – a high school and undergraduate humanities teacher. 

Before I go any further, a disclaimer – I am not an educator, but an undergraduate student close to graduating from RMIT’s Bachelor of Environment and Society program. My perspective about climate change education is therefore coming from a place of knowing how I like to be taught and how I best engage with learning, as well as from interaction and conversations with peers, educators, friends, family, and acquaintances about climate change and its implications for the planet and its people. I am also an ex-student of Blanche, who continues to inspire me through her ideas and actions and her unwavering commitment to engaging with topics such as those discussed in the workshop, despite this being incredibly challenging work.

My point of view is therefore not necessarily representative of others who attended the workshop, who by and large work as educators and as such have a much deeper understanding of what effective and responsible education entails, and who are furthermore bound by professional ethics and – as discussed in the workshop – prescriptive and/or restrictive curricula that overlooks and/or discourages discussion of the very real, very complex human emotions surrounding climate change.

Given this, and considering the potential audience of this blog, I will not attempt to instruct those eminently more qualified on how to address and manage the emotional impact of climate change with students in the classroom. What I can offer is my own personal perspective of the topic, as learned through my tertiary studies, my own readings, the MESEJ workshop, and my opinion that communication and the sharing of ideas and feelings around climate change and other social and environmental justice issues is key to building a more equitable and livable world.

Even in my degree program that focuses specifically on the interactions between environment and society and where climate change has some direct or indirect link to almost every subject I have studied, only one of my lecturers or tutors – Blanche – has acknowledged that firstly, climate change can stir up some complex and confronting emotions, and secondly, that providing a safe space to discuss these feelings as well as developing techniques for self-care are integral to preventing disengagement and burnout for those of us studying and/or intending to work in this area.

My own feelings about climate change – as discussed in the workshop – oscillate between sadness, anger, helplessness, despair, shame, and an overwhelming, visceral sense of loss. And despite being taught – and understanding – that the antidote to these feelings is action, after completing a climate change subject in 2016 I almost completely disengaged from thinking, talking and reading about the issue. I also made a conscious decision to pursue something less emotionally challenging after graduation – such as sustainable food systems or urban greening – as a means to protect myself from the sense of hopelessness and pain I felt about climate change and related injustices.

It has only been very recently that I have examined my values and emotions around climate change and the system that enables and perpetuates other forms of social and environmental destruction, and started to articulate my feelings and ideas both in writing and verbally in safe, supportive spaces – including in the workshop. Through this, I have come to know myself better, build emotional resilience, look at the world in which I live and participate and co-create through a different lens, and realise that climate change is an area in which – because of my intense emotional connection to, and not in spite of it – I feel compelled to work and hopefully inspire others through the sharing of stories and the building of communities of caring to contribute – collectively – to meaningful, tangible change.

Without this recent realisation, I doubt I would have attended the MESEJ workshop, which was structured in a way that encouraged participation and invited the group to identify and articulate our emotions around climate change through written or spoken word, or drawing. I’m very glad I did though, as the experience was intense but ultimately very rewarding. The results of our various activities and discussions revealed a range of feelings including anger, grief, depression, shame, disillusionment and despair – but also hope and acceptance. It was validating and reassuring to realise that other participants shared many similar emotions to my own, and also interesting that, across the board, our feelings weren’t static but rather fluctuated or had evolved over time.

Previously I had attributed my negative feelings about climate change to a combination of being overly-empathetic and to a lack of confidence that I possessed the knowledge, skills, or appropriate platform to create change. The logical response to that – in my mind – was to disengage. Now, thanks to some deep introspection and sharing of my feelings through university coursework and the workshop, I understand that mine is a reasonable and common response to climate change. Feeling sad or fearful or angry about environmental and social injustices doesn’t equate to emotional instability – it’s a natural human response to very overwhelming stimuli – and I’m not alone in feeling this way. The key, I believe, is what we individually and collectively do with these emotions, and how we communicate them to others in a way that builds solidarity and resilience, rather than inadvertently precipitating disengagement.

I think most of us in attendance at the workshop agreed that learning to manage our emotional responses to climate change is a prerequisite to instructing others how to do so, and Blanche recommended Ashlee Cunsolo Willox’s Climate Change as the Work of Mourning as a follow-up reading, which I have personally found very helpful in reframing my own feelings of grief and loss as opportunities to share and connect with others.

The take-home message from the workshop, for me, was that we have a responsibility – as educated, relatively privileged global citizens concerned with the impacts of climate change, and more formally as educators – to not only share our knowledge, thoughts, and feelings about climate change, but to create safe spaces for young people to do the same. As well, with the current lack of political leadership, misinformation in the media about climate change, and the disappearance of community, I think that developing emotional resilience through such discussions in the classroom is essential if we want future generations to engage with politics and the world outside of school, friendship groups and family, and to fight for social and environmental justice in an increasingly inequitable world.

I realise that my ideas may not be mainstream, but I wonder – if we don’t provide young people with the tools not only to connect with these issues, but to communicate their values and feelings effectively, who will? Also, how do we teach them to act with compassion, respect and intention if we don’t demonstrate – with our own words and actions – that the emotions underlying our desire to create a better world are normal, worthy of examination and – crucially – should be shared? How do we create a future generation of empathetic, engaged, socially-conscious critical thinkers and effective change-makers if we don’t provide safe and supportive spaces for them to test the waters?

My thoughts, after the workshop, are that we won’t do this by wrapping them in cotton wool and shielding them from the harsh realities of the world. We won’t do this by pretending that climate change will be solved by simply communicating the science or developing technological fixes to slow global warming. And, we certainly can’t hold the next generation in contempt when we are the ones with the capacity – right now – to create change and model effective ways of thinking and doing. If we’re doing a shit job, we can’t expect those we’re teaching to do any better.

This is not easy work, but it’s essential to the future of the planet and humanity. The question we have to ask ourselves is not only what our responsibility as global citizens is to the people who will be directly and disproportionately impacted by climate change – but also who we want to be to each other, and how we can support one another on this trajectory into the unknown.

The importance of this was affirmed through feedback at the end of the workshop, which indicated that we all appreciated the opportunity to share our emotions, ideas and concerns about climate change with like-minded others, and that talking about our grief, sadness, anger, etc., validated our collective desire to create a more sustainable and just world in spite of the challenges this work presents. The workshop also reconfirmed to me the value and necessity of providing safe spaces – whether in the classroom or platforms such as MESEJ – to share our values, ideas, fears and dreams, to enhance communication, build relationships, reconnect community, and re-position hope as key to our common future.

NAPLAN, MySchool, PISA: What’s wrong with standardised testing?

By Buffy Moon

22 August 2017

Coming from a family in which academic test scores were a compulsory topic for discussion at every Christmas and birthday gathering, with an older brother who was a finely-tuned high stakes test-taking machine, I already had a few feelings about standardised testing coming into this workshop.

The words ‘standardised test’ instantly conjure vivid childhood memories of opening A4 envelopes, heart racing in anticipation of seeing my mathematical, writing or reading ability represented as a dot on a scale or bell curve.

It took me years after leaving school to discover and extract the deeply felt belief that my primary (if not only) worth was my ability to achieve high academic results.

Having had such a fraught experience of school, I never imagined myself as a teacher. Yet my passion for learning, history, politics, languages, literature and the joy of working with children gradually pulled me in that direction.

Teaching my first class of newly-arrived English as an Additional Language (EAL) students last year, I desperately wanted to shield them from the experience of seeing themselves placed below whatever position on the ‘achievement scale’ they had been taught to see as acceptable. Yet to my dismay, they all wanted to do NAPLAN!

‘You don’t have to do NAPLAN,’ I explained. ‘It is not compulsory for students who have been in Australia for less than a year.’

‘But we can do it, Beth!’ they insisted. The whole school was buzzing with talk of NAPLAN. Everyone was preparing and they wanted to be like all the other students.

I was impressed by their determination, and the last thing I wanted was for them to think that I had no faith in them. So I decided to offer them a trial Language Conventions test to give them a better idea of whether they wanted to sit the real thing.

A large part of this test involves identifying and correcting misspelt words. I assumed that the tedium of this experience alone would be enough to turn them off NAPLAN. For some, I was right. For others, it wasn’t until they were marking cross after cross on their practice test papers as we corrected them together in class that they began to rethink their initial enthusiasm for NAPLAN.

I was pleased to have regained time with my students to do work with more real-world relevance than NAPLAN prep, but I felt sad to have dashed their hopes of being able to present themselves to their families as high-achieving dots on a NAPLAN results report. At a deeper level, I was ashamed to belong to a society and profession that taught children to see learning and achievement in such dehumanising terms.

There are many lenses through which a standardised test such as NAPLAN can be critiqued, and the workshop organised by Fiona Taylor and Lucy Hunan offered a range of interesting viewpoints. The first presenter, Honorary Fellow at Victoria University, Neil Hooley, asked us to consider the purpose of schooling in assessing the value of standardised testing. Is the role of the school teacher simply to present students with pre-given knowledge and assess their ability to repeat it? Or should teachers provide students with opportunities to construct new understandings based on their own experiences (as progressive educational theorists like Dewey, Vygotsky and Freire affirmed)?

If students are genuinely constructing new understandings, of what value is a predetermined set of criteria with which to assess them? Even if we accept that part of school should be about acquiring knowledge constructed by people in the past, isn’t the most important thing how students adapt, apply and build on that knowledge? And what can standardised tests really tell us about their ability to do that?

The second presenter, teacher educator David Hornsby, offered a more grounded critique of NAPLAN. Drawing on the fascinating, yet easy-to-read research of education academic Margaret Wu, David explained that NAPLAN tests are unreliable measures of even the limited areas of learning they claim to assess: literacy and numeracy.

Based on the calculations of ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) obtained by Wu under the Freedom of Information Act, random fluctuation of test scores for an individual student is estimated to be ±7 score points, which is more than one year’s average growth. That means that a student’s results on two tests administered one year apart could show no growth or three years’ growth, just through random fluctuation of test scores.

This random fluctuation is produced because of the limited number of questions that can be asked in a single test under the sweeping banners of “numeracy” or “literacy”. It is simply not possible to test all the skills students are expected to have acquired at a particular year level, and students will inevitably perform better on one set of questions than another.

This is quite a different explanation of NAPLAN test score variation than that offered by the brochure ACARA provides to parents, which suggests that unexpectedly low scores may be caused by “illness or other distractions”. It never mentions that random fluctuation of scores is inherent to the test itself (as that could undermine the government’s decision to spend millions of dollars developing and administering these tests).

Another issue David raised that applies to all tests administered within a limited timeframe is that such tests advantage shallow thinking and penalised slow, careful thinking, as students who take the time to think about questions deeply do not manage to finish.

Drawing in questions of teacher rights, Deputy President of AEU Victoria, Justin Mullaly, argued that standardised tests like NAPLAN marginalise the role of teachers in determining what we assess and how. Justin then highlighted the links between the standardisation of curriculum and commercial interests in Australia and internationally. Companies generate huge profits through the testing industry, as schools and parents scramble to give their students and children a competitive advantage over their peers.

Justin also argued that NAPLAN is a diversionary tactic of the government, as it provides a means to blame individual schools for poor student outcomes, rather than recognising disadvantage as a product of funding disparities between schools and socio-economic inequalities between students.

Finally, Justin explained that by creating the appearance of a crisis in school performance, governments can provide justification for further privatisation of the public education system, as has occurred in the US.

In the discussion that followed, participants offered a range of insights based on their experiences as teachers, student teachers and parents. We heard how schools are finding the surest way to improve their NAPLAN and VCE scores is by excluding “underperforming” students from the tests, or from the school altogether.

For me, one of the most interesting questions to be generated was around how we, as teachers, can answer calls for schools to be more accountable to their students, parents and the public, while rejecting the practice of standardised testing. Teacher and education researcher Sophie Rudolf affirmed the value of engaging students in discussions about how they know they are making progress in their learning.

Many participants agreed that students should be supported to monitor their own learning and present their achievements to their parents, peers, and broader community. This kind of assessment is empowering for students, parents and teachers alike, and helps everyone to see academic achievement as more than just a test score.