A discussion paper has been developed by the Australian Primary Principals Association (APPA) to draw attention to problems arising from the publication of NAPLAN data on the My School website. APPA is increasingly concerned that the public availability of data on all schools, combined with the powerful and flexible search tools on My School, has shifted NAPLAN into a high stakes environment and had significant unintended negative consequences for schools.
High stakes assessment involves tests that have significant consequences for students, teachers and others in education, and also involves public reporting and public accountability. Our paper presents national and international research evidence of the significant negative effects of such testing regimes, including:
Our paper then examines the implementation of NAPLAN and the public reporting of NAPLAN results in searchable form on the My School website. It concludes that there is clear evidence that NAPLAN has become a high stakes assessment regime, and that the negative effects evident in international research are also evident in Australia.
APPA states its support for NAPLAN, recognises its role in school transparency and accountability measures, and values the clear, independent data provided by the assessment regime to schools and school systems. The paper does not see NAPLAN itself as the source of the problems identified in the paper; rather, we argue that the evidence suggests they result in large part from the publication of comprehensive, searchable results on My School. This is clear in the publication of league tables of schools in Australia and a public discourse that sees NAPLAN as the key source of information about a school.
APPA proposes that this deteriorating situation can be resolved in the following ways:
The key issue raised by APPA in this paper concerns the consequences of the public reporting of NAPLAN data for all schools on the My School website. It is our contention that this has had serious negative effects on the education of Australian children, especially in primary schools, and that these effects can only be managed by removing NAPLAN data from the website.
The argument is easily misinterpreted. In order to demonstrate the effects we are concerned about, the paper discusses the negative consequences of high stakes testing, of which NAPLAN has become an example. We stress that the argument is not about NAPLAN, which we support, but about the perverse consequences produced by its publication in searchable form on My School.
The paper is concerned with the side effects produced by the publication of NAPLAN data in an aggregated, searchable form and by the provision of simple, apparently transparent, comparisons of schools. We argue that these features have a net negative effect on the education of Australian children, especially in primary schools.
Despite our support for NAPLAN, we regard the program as pernicious if it is used to produce broad-brush and inaccurate rankings and comparisons of schools. We think it is counter-productive if it drives out and devalues other data and mechanisms for school evaluation and improvement. We think it is damaging if it distorts the curriculum and pushes schools and teachers to spend excessive time on test preparation. We think it can be destructive if it creates anxiety and fear in primary children. These and other difficulties with the present position of NAPLAN in Australian education are functions principally of the publication of NAPLAN data on My School and the resulting perception of NAPLAN as a high stakes assessment regime.
The discussion paper, ‘My School - NAPLAN Discussion Paper’, is available on the APPA website. It will be the basis for a motion at the APPA Conference in Sydney in October where I believe primary principals will call for the publication of school level NAPLAN data on My School to cease. I commend the paper to you.
President, Australian Primary Principals Association
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Provide a brief description of where you currently work as a school leader.
Currently, I am the principal of Rollins Primary School, a dual campus school of 268 students. The main campus is located in the Geelong residential suburb of Bell Post Hill. The second campus is four kilometres away in Batesford. We are fortunate to have a supportive parent community and fabulous students. The school has been through a significant period of staff change in recent years and I often reflect on how lucky I am to work with such a committed and professional group of people.
How long have you been a school leader? What/where was your first appointment?
My entry into school leadership was almost 20 years ago but my first school appointment in 1980 was to Woodville Primary School, in Hoppers Crossing, where I spent 10 amazing years honing my skills as a teacher. It was at Woodville that I learned a lot about developing positive relationships with all members of the school community but, most importantly, the students. I was fortunate during these years to work with some of the most impressive school leaders and teachers that I have had the pleasure to be associated with. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that many of my teaching colleagues from Woodville in the 1980’s went on to become principals themselves.
When, and why, did you originally want to become a school leader?
My first venture into the Principal Class was in 1995, when I was appointed to the position of assistant principal at North Shore PS, in the northern suburbs of Geelong. Two and a half years later, I became the principal of that school, and remained there until the end of 1999. I was excited to move into the Principal Class, after having undertaken a wide range of leadership experiences throughout my 15 years as a classroom teacher and, although the reasons are somewhat intangible, I knew that the time was right for me to take the next step into leadership.
What makes you smile at work?
It brings a smile to my face when the children are happy, engaged and learning and when teachers make a genuinely positive connection with their students. For me, one of the most rewarding part of this job is when you see a child achieve something that they have never achieved before or when they show pride in a challenge they have accepted. There are also many occasions when children say the funniest things, generally with complete innocence, and those moments are pure gold.
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What are you most pleased about in relation to your staff?
My staff are a highly motivated group of individuals. That being said, the thing that pleases me most about them is the way in which they embrace the team ethos we have worked so hard to build. No one is an island at Rollins and the level of communication, collaboration and cooperation, both within and across school teams, is of the highest standard. We feel comfortable to challenge each other professionally and to accept that there can be better ways to do things. I love my staff!
What was the best day you ever had as a school leader?
It’s virtually impossible to pick out just one day. However, there are a number of days that come to mind as being just that little bit special, including the day the local radio station broadcast from our school grounds; the Saturday when a neighbourhood church provided 150 volunteers to complete a range of building and grounds projects at school; the day we opened our BER building (which is now a vital resource for our school community we couldn’t live without) and all the days when our entire student population provides an evening of entertainment for our community at the school concert.
What personal and professional attributes helped you through your worst day as a school leader?
During 2007-2008, I had the good fortune to be seconded to DEECD’s Conduct and Ethics Branch, where I worked as an Investigations Officer with a hugely talented team of people. This was a tremendously rewarding period of my career, which equipped me with skills that have enabled me to become a much better principal than I was prior to this experience. The toughest days in schools can be those when you have to challenge a staff member in whom you have placed great trust. Attributes such as honest communication, analytical thinking, patience, empathy and a sense of humour are those which were enhanced in my time at the C&E Branch, and which I draw on for the most challenging of days.
As an inexperienced principal, was the most useful lesson you ever learned from a more experienced principal colleague?
I have been fortunate to work with some highly capable school leaders and learned many valuable lessons throughout my career. However, the one that that sticks with me most of all is the one I learned from my principal in my early years as an assistant principal. Under his leadership, I came to truly understand that everything we do is for the children; whatever decision is made should be made in the context of what is in the best interest of the students. For many children, the best time of their day is the time they spend at school, between 9.00am and 3.30pm. It’s our job to make sure that every minute they spend at school adds value to their lives.
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What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you as a school leader?
Many years ago, while principal of North Shore PS, we enjoyed a staff function one evening during the school week. In the course of the evening, one of my teachers joked ‘We might all take the day off tomorrow, Steve’ and I flippantly replied, ‘Yes, that’s a great idea’. The next morning, I had a principals’ briefing and didn’t arrive at school until 11.00am. To my absolute horror, the car park was empty, the school was locked and not a person was in sight. To this day, I’m not sure how such an elaborate prank was organised in such a short period of time but I was hugely relieved a few minutes after my arrival to find every student and staff member in fits of laughter hiding from me in the hall. The staff had even gone to the trouble of parking their cars offsite, well out of view.
What tips would you give beginning school leaders about staying positive and keeping their energy levels high?
School leaders beginning their journey can quickly become consumed by their role, which is at times both challenging and demanding. It is so important to maintain a balance and have interests beyond school. Personally, I enjoy a Saturday afternoon at the local footy and my wife and I love nothing more than a weekend away or dining out at a restaurant where we can enjoy a meal with a good bottle of wine. It’s important to keep in mind that, when confronted by a challenging situation at school, that a considered and calm response will often lead to a positive outcome. I’ve found throughout my career that the worst decisions I’ve made have been the decisions that have been made on the run.
If you could name just one thing that kept you going to school every day, even during tough times, what would that be?
I can honestly say that I love going to work every day, however some days are obviously more difficult than others. I have found that one of the most valuable resources available to principals during those challenging times is their network of colleagues. The wealth of knowledge and experience available is enormous and it’s very comforting to know that there is always someone who is prepared to share their time and expertise when things get tough. Even after many years as a principal, I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call a colleague if I feel the need to talk through a particularly difficult situation and get some independent advice.
Steve McGarrigle, Principal, Rollins Primary School, Bell Post Hill, Victoria
Debra J. Crouch
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