Dr Ken Boston, former director-general of the NSW Dept of Education and former head of England’s curriculum authority has been in Australia sharing his views on national testing and league tables.
While he supports national testing as a diagnostic rather than deterministic tool, Dr Boston believes league tables are in themselves a ‘crude’ methodology – lacking depth and failing to capture the diversity of schools and the context in which they operate.
Speaking to the Australian Primary Principals Association this week, Dr Boston said he favours:
“…rich reports which explain why a school may be performing less well, not just simplistic league tables. Don’t massage the data, no jiggery pokery, no smoke or mirrors, just present the data as it is. My belief is this would offer greater public accountability than league tables.”
No-one is opposed to greater transparency in education so long as it makes a real difference to students and their learning.
What has become evident is that league tables are more a measure of government performance in educational reform. It may tick the boxes for voters but does little to address the substantive issues and challenges facing Australian education today.
The comments of two western Sydney principals in the Australian (12/8/09) strikes at the heart of this matter.
‘They [NAPLAN results] don’t show how the school is performing in terms of how it’s providing for the local community.’ (Phil Walker, Kings Langley Public School)
If you don’t work on their social and emotional wellbeing to start with, then they don’t have the facilities to learn.’ (Cheryl Walsh, St Bernadette’s Primary, Lalor Park).
League tables indicate which schools are meeting national minimum standards (or not) but they don’t offer explanations or provide solutions to improve the quality of learning and teaching.
For me , the focus on school improvement needs to be on the collection and analysis of a broad set of data including school participation in the community and student well-being.
To do this well, systems and schools need the skills and instruments to be able to effectively analyse data and frame questions that lead to improved practice and learning outcomes.
They need a practice of inquiry and reflection on learning which is too often ignored in a climate of test test and test. Testing then drives the learning agenda, not the nature and quality of the teaching. I referred to Elmore’s idea on this in a previous post. A school community committed to improving outcomes for all students know their students’ performance in both broad and deep ways. In their professional kit bag you find data on a range of areas but in particular:
Walk into any high-performing school and you will see an openness to inquiry, public accountability and a willingness to inform parents on their child’s progress. Providing teachers and schools with the skill set and tools to improve learning will score ticks in all the right boxes.