Today I read a disheartening tweet from Justine Ferrari (National Education Correspondent for the Australian) about teachers changing kids’ answers on national tests so it looked like they were performing better than they were.
The tweet was referring to an article entitled Wrong Answer in the New Yorker. It tells the story of how teachers were worried about students continuing to do poorly on state-wide tests and the continuation of sanctions, including potential school closure.
While I don’t condone teachers cheating, the whole system that led to this is ridiculous.
Yet, external testing is not the enemy. The way that results are used (or rather abused) is the problem.
In 2012, I suffered a massive heart attack. I was airlifted to another hospital where doctors told my wife I wouldn’t make it through the next night. Surgery … heart pumps … medicine … none of it was working.
How did the doctors know this – tests and the data those tests provided.
Thankfully, I did make it through the night – just. However, testing showed that I wasn’t getting any better. No one looked at these test results and said ‘bad doctor’, let’s cut his pay. Nor was anyone saying that we should close the hospital if I didn’t get better by the next round of tests.
Instead, the doctor consulted with his colleagues (and there were many of them as the hospital specialised in heart conditions). He even consulted with other cardiologists from far away.
One cardiologist suggested a new drug. A drug that had been trialled, but was not yet widely available. It worked. The doctor was happy and was eagerly awaiting for me to be well enough to be flown to another hospital where I would wait for a heart transplant.
To his surprise, I bounced back so well my heart transplant was deferred. Several weeks later, I was sent home. Since then I have had the heart pump removed, as well as a pacemaker and defibrillator (think zapper) implanted in my chest. I am still on the list for heart transplant and can’t work (hence I’ve got time to write this stuff), but my transplant is no longer urgent or imminent. I feel quite good, but I deteriorate slowly waiting for my heart to finally give in.
The point of this story though has nothing to do with my heart. It has to do with tests, results and how they should be used.
My long and personal observation of doctors at work helped me clarify my stance on the issue.
No one should use test results to blame teachers, principals or schools. If hospitals operated that way, those specialising in terminal conditions such as heart disease and cancer would be considered the worst of the worst. It is no different with schools. The easiest way to get good results is to work in schools with intelligent, conscientious and well-behaved students (money doesn’t hurt either). Put me in one of those schools and judge me – I know I’ll come out smelling like roses.
Test results do tell students and parents how they are doing. When I was told I had a 15% ejection fraction, a resting heart rate of 110 and a collapsed lung, I knew that I wasn’t doing so well. When my heart rate went down and my ejection fraction went up, I knew I was doing better. It also helped me to know how I was doing compared to ‘normal’ people (e.g. the average ejection fraction is 60%).
Test results do tell teachers if what they are doing is working. When my doctors saw my test results showed that what they had done so far wasn’t working, they talked about it, changed what they were doing and kept going until something worked. They didn’t excuse the results (oh, his heart attack was massive so this isn’t surprising – we won’t do anything but let him die). Yet, this is what some teachers do (oh, it’s an unfair test, he suffers from ADHD and is poor, we’ll be nice to him but let him keep failing). However, nor did my doctors blame themselves (oh, he’s not getting any better, I must be a terrible doctor) and no one else blamed them either. Yet, some teachers do blame themselves and many others are scared of being blamed. Neither is helpful.
Many of my friends and colleagues have often thought I was strange (and that’s a nice word for it). One reason – I was one of the few teachers who saw that NAPLAN could be a good thing.
But the abuse of the valuable data that NAPLAN provides is inexcusable. It should never be used to rank schools, as this as meaningless as ranking hospitals (as explained above). School-level data should not have been made public on My School, and in my opinion, there should be no compulsion for schools to make their data available to their communities.
Test results are for:
- Individual students and their parents
- The people responsible for teaching those students