I had hoped to avoid commenting on the 'My School' website released in Australia on Friday, because I figure that no matter what I say about it, lots of people reading the blog will disagree. But when one of the readers of the blog (Jo) asked for my opinion I thought that I should say something. As well, the publishing of league tables of the 'best' and 'worst' schools made me quite angry. My apologies to international readers of the blog for this more parochial topic, but I'm sure that some of you will have had similar models for national assessment in your countries
Let me first declare some background that some might see as conflicts of interest:
- I was an academic adviser to the first comprehensive national literacy assessment in this country in the late 1990s (the National English Literacy Survey) that was ultimately foundational to the current testing that informs the site.
- I spent 10 years as a primary school teacher and have a strong interest in assessment.
- My two daughters went to the closest public schools to our homes and my only school-aged grandchildren are currently attending the closest public school to their home.
A few givens about schools and families
1. Teachers vary in ability and at times after 30+ years in the classroom the odd teacher wishes they were elsewhere (as in all occupations), BUT I've rarely met a teacher who wasn't doing their best to help children learn.
2. My own family literacy research over a period of 15 years (see my website for more details HERE) demonstrated many things, but the most self-evident of the findings was that in spite of the varied resources, education and life experience of parents, that it is difficult to find a parent who doesn't want the best for their children.
3. Australia has one of the finest school education systems in the world. The international data speaks for itself. The results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have shown over the last decade that Australia is consistently one of the highest achieving school systems in the world. Overall literacy achievements have remained in the top 6 in the world, mathematical ability has been in the top 12 and scientific knowledge in the top 3. While we have ongoing underachievement by Indigenous students, overall performance on international comparisons is outstanding.
4. Parents want to know how well their children are doing at school, not just in terms of their effort and ability, but how they compare with other children. This has led some parents and parent advocates to be critical at times of school assessment practices and the feedback given to parents.
5. Teachers know that basic skills tests can only ever sample a limited range of the things that are taught at school and that they fail to measure many other things that they see as fundamental to judging the success of schooling.
6. The majority of children no longer go to the closest school to their homes. Instead, they attend varied schools: near parent's place of work; where after school care is provided; that are private; that are selective and so on. Hence, parents today make choices about where they should send their precious children and feel the need for information that makes comparison possible.
What's right about the 'My School' website?
1. The website is an attempt to satisfy the demands of parents for data on how well their children's school performs relative to other schools.
2. It is simple and attempts to make comparisons between schools that serve comparable communities. The latter relies on a measure of socio-economic advantage based on census districts associated with schools, that considers 16 variables that may influence educational outcomes, including measures of income, the proportion of non-English speaking background, employment and educational attainment.
3. It is a response to a public call for greater accountability and transparency in school reporting on standards.
4. It offers measures across a broad range of academic areas.
5. It offers some basic comparative information on enrolments, student attendance and promises to eventually provide data on funding levels.
What's wrong with the site?
1. The implicit assumption that you can measure school performance, and hence teacher competence, using this blunt instrument, is incorrect and grossly unfair to teachers. The test data offer an assessment of school cohorts in a range of academic skills and competencies that can be tested using a mass assessment programme.
2. While the site is able to show which student groups perform best on the above skills and competencies, it is unable to identify fairly why this is occurring. For example, I looked at one school that seemed to have outstanding results for year 3 but whose results for year 5 were average. Does this drop off reflect the quality of the teachers in tear 4 and 5? Or some quirky difference in the demographic over time? Perhaps a new private school nearby had attracted some of the best students after year three? No doubt, teachers and parents in the community could suggest some reasons for this drop in achievement. I also considered one of the elite schools that the newspapers declared one of the stars. Interestingly, in spite of very high achievement, the growth from year 7 to year 9 was limited in reading. What does this show? No value-added by the year 8 teachers? The reality is that the data need to be interpreted with material extraneous to the site.
3. The site isn't able to measure what some parents find most important. What does the site tell a parent (or a politician) about the arts? What about creativity and the ability to solve problems? Leadership development? Sport and fitness? Programs for children with learning difficulties? The care and compassion of staff? Emotional well being? Are the children happy in these schools? How open is the school to parental involvement? How approachable are staff members? What is the school budget for professional development, and how does this compare to other schools? In the case of secondary schools, what is youth culture like in the school? What values are shaping my child and what is the school doing to promote the values that I see as important?
There have many unhelpful comments based on the website comparisons, in fact too many to count. However, surely the newspapers that published the 'top of the class' and the 'bottom' in the State, deserve to be criticised strongly. I have spent extended time as a researcher in some of the so-called worst schools and always found children who were seeking to do their best and dedicated teachers. At times, these schools lack resources and struggle in communities where there are a myriad of social problems. In spite of the number of families who struggle to cope with the challenges of life, they were (on the whole) doing the best that they could to ensure that their children had the best education possible. Publishing the names of such schools on a public list as failures is an indictment upon those who are responsible; those who condone it; and those of us who stand by and say nothing to defend them. I applaud the teaching profession for asking serious questions about the way that the My School Website is being used.
However, the teaching profession cannot simply refuse to cooperate in providing public information about the performance of the children in every class. The fact that newspapers have published league tables and many people have bought them, suggests that parents do want to know more about the quality of education in their children's school. The question is, how can schools meet this expectation without using a blunt instrument of the type that we've seen demonstrated? Efforts to improve the quality of the feedback that schools offer to parents is critical. But a key starting point is that such reporting needs to be at the individual child, class and school level. While the aggregating of national and state data is relevant, the type of public league tables that we've seen are unsupportable.
Sydney Morning Herald article (here)