Shuffling NAPLAN’s Deckchairs

We’re late to this, but it’s gotta be done.

Some State education ministers, unhappy with NAPLAN, commissioned a review, which appeared a couple weeks ago. The Review considers many contentious aspects of NAPLAN, but we’ll focus upon “numeracy”, NAPLAN’s homeopathic proxy for mathematics. We’ll leave others to debate “literacy” and the writing tests, and the timing and reporting and so forth.

So, what might the Review entail for the Son-of-NAPLAN testing of mathematics? Bugger all.

Which was always going to happen. For all the endless public and pundit whining about NAPLAN, which is what prompted this latest Review, none of the criticism has been aimed at the two elephants: the Australian Curriculum, which underpins NAPLAN, is a meatless mass of gristle and fat; and “numeracy” is not mathematics, is not arithmetic, and is barely anything. The inevitable consequence is that NAPLAN amounts to the aimless testing of untestable fuzz. As Gertrude Stein would have put it, there is no there there to test.

This misdirection of the Review was locked in by the terms of reference. No mention is made of “mathematics” or “arithmetic”. The single reference in the Terms to “numeracy” is a deadpan call for “the most efficient and effective system for assessing key literacy and numeracy outcomes”, as if this were a clear and unproblematic and worthy goal. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Review gives almost no attention to arithmetic and mathematics, and the meaning(lessness) of numeracy, and indeed works actively to avoid it.

The Review includes a capsule summary of the Numeracy tests, a superficial comparison to PISA and TIMSS, and Australia’s relative performance over time on these tests (pp 34-42). There is no proper exposition, however, of the nature of the tests. There is nothing reflecting the hard fact that NAPLAN and PISA are pseudomathematical garbage. TIMSS, on the other hand, is decidedly not garbage, so what does the Review do with that? That is interesting.

In what could have been a beacon paragraph, the Review compares the Australian Curriculum with expectations on TIMSS:

“… The Australian Curriculum emphasis on knowing and applying is similar to TIMSS but the Australian Curriculum does not appear to cover some of the complexity that is described in the TIMSS framework under reasoning. It seems likely, too, that a substantial number of TIMSS mathematics items are beyond Australian Curriculum expectations for achievement, especially at the Year 4 level.”

In summary, the emphasis on “knowing and applying” mathematics in the Australian Curriculum is just like TIMSS, as long as you don’t really care how much students know, or how deeply they can apply it, or how successful you “expect” them to be at it. Yep, two peas in a pod.

What does the Review then do with this critical paragraph? Nothing. They just drone ahead. Here is the indication that their entire Review is doomed to idiot trivialities, but they can’t see it, or won’t admit it. They see the smoke, note the smoke, but it doesn’t occur to them, or they just can’t be bothered, or it wasn’t in their idiot Terms, to look for the damn gun.

Finally, what of the recommendations proposed by the Review? There are two that concern the testing of numeracy and/or mathematics. The first, Recommendation 2.2, is that authorities

“Rename the numeracy test as mathematics …”

Huh. And what would be the purpose of that? Well, supposedly it would “clarify that [the test] assesses the content and proficiency strands of the Australian Curriculum: Mathematics”. Except, of course, and as the Review itself acknowledges, the Numeracy test doesn’t do anything of the sort. And, even to the minimal extent that it does, it just points back to Elephant Number One, that the Australian Curriculum is not a properly sound basis for anything.

The isolated suggestion to rename a test is of course a distracting triviality. Alas, not all of the Review’s recommendations are so trivial. Recommendation 2.3 proposes a new test, for

“… [the] assessment of critical and creative thinking in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) …”

Ah, Yes. Let’s test whether ten-year-old Tommy is the new Einstein.

This is a monumentally stupid recommendation. Is Jenny the next Newton? Maybe. But can she manipulate numbers and expressions with sufficient speed and accuracy to hold, let alone mould, a substantial mathematical thought in her head? Just maybe you might want to test for that first? Is Carol the new Capote? Then perhaps first teach her the basics of grammar, first teach her how to construct a clear and correct sentence. Then you can think to tease out all the great works inside her. Is Fritz another Mozart? Gee, I dunno. How are his scales? And on and on.

This constant, idiot call for the teaching of and, worse, the testing of “higher order” thinking, this mindless genuflection to reasoning and creativity, is maddening. It ignores the stubborn fact that deeper thought and creativity in any discipline can only be built upon the craft, upon the basic knowledge and skills of that discipline. The Review’s call is even worse for that, since STEM isn’t a discipline, it’s just a foggy con job.

This Godzilla versus Mothra battle is never likely to end, nor likely to end well. On the one side are the numeracy nuts, who can’t see the value of skills independent of some ridiculous application. On the other side are the creativity clowns, who ludicrously denigrate “the basics”, and ludicrously paint NAPLAN as the basics they’re denigrating. Neither side exhibits any understanding of what the basics are, or their critical importance. Neither side has a clue. Which means, unless and until these two monsters somehow destroy each other, we’re all doomed.

8 Replies to “Shuffling NAPLAN’s Deckchairs”

  1. Yeah we are in a dark place. My son (8yrs) recently did his UNSW exams (optional) and had a blast. From what he says, the questions were ok (but that’s another story).

    If there is one thing you can be sure of, it is that all of this will change. New management will come in and eventually all of this will be tossed. It is possible that it will be replaced by something worse, of course.

    1. Yes. That’s the Godzilla versus Mothra aspect. Usually in political/cultural/educational battles there’s at least someone to cheer for. It may be David versus Goliath, but there’s a David. Here, there’s no one. Here, they are all idiots, every last one of them.

  2. Someone please correct me, but didn’t NAPLAN come about because the Gillard (or Rudd?) government said parents wanted “simple to understand reports” of their child’s development?

    I’m not for one moment saying NAPLAN delivered that (parents I speak to are more confused now than ever and a lot feel the stress caused by NAPLAN is unjustifiable) so even if there was an alternative, I really wouldn’t know who to cheer for.

    Getting rid of these things (such as ATARs, for example…) just doesn’t seem to be an option, despite the evidence suggesting they really don’t work.

    1. RF, yeah I think it was Gillard-Rudd. In any case Labor has been at least as idiotic as the Liberal-National assholes on NAPLAN.

      The “stress” argument is ludicrous. Everyone getting the vapours over kids being stressed is a major reason why the AC and NAPLAN are so awful. That’s not to argue that there’s a need for national testing throughout school, either as a universal, every-last-kid thing, or as a random sample, snapshot thing. I’m not convinced either is a bad thing, or a necessary thing.

      But both are pointless if we don’t agree beforehand that kids should learn basic arithmetic and basic grammar. The bottom line is, if you’re going to have an “important” test, then don’t test shit.

  3. Based on a comment by Neil Postman (whose books Marty recommended), a question that one might ask about NAPLAN is “What problem does NAPLAN solve?”

    1. It’s the kind of question Postman asks in his book Technopoly. And yes, it is an excellent question to ask of NAPLAN, both in its current form, and in any form.

  4. I, too, despise the term ‘numeracy’ but I suspect that it was chosen because it appealed to those who wanted some word that was vaguely related to arithmetic that ended with ‘eracy’ in order to be similar to the word ‘literacy’. Sadly, they didn’t use the word ‘degeneracy’, probably because it too obviously telegraphed where all this bullshitteracy was (and is) heading.

    1. Thanks, Rixter. It’s an appalling word, for an appalling, half-baked idea. I’m sure you are correct, that “numeracy” was intended to suggest an analogue of “literacy”, which may now be true, but I’m not sure it was always true. I have the sense that “literacy” may have once had decent meaning and has now been corrupted, à la numeracy.

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