NAPLAN scare campaigns about the potential harm of ‘school league tables’ are little more than hot air — often whipped up by vested interests in the endless war on educational accountability.
This year’s recent update to data on the MySchool website — where among others, school NAPLAN results are hosted — is noticeably scarce. With no exams held in 2020, there are no NAPLAN results to report. Reporting on student attendance was relegated to the too-hard basket because schools were closed — although in some jurisdictions for as little as one week.
Over the years, education league tables have become increasingly popular, largely because parents have a genuine interest in what they say. It’s not just NAPLAN, but also country comparisons of PISA results, listing of HSC heavy-hitters, and rankings of our universities. Typically, such tables help interested users in making education choices for their children. Almost always, such competition is a force for good.
Yet, league tables are regularly maligned by virtually all education insiders — including teachers’ unions, departmental boffins, and progressive educationalists.
Certainly, a ‘10 worst schools near you’ table could feasibly create unfair stigma and make the work of educators harder. And it’s true that education rankings — including those based on NAPLAN testing — do not, and cannot, measure absolutely everything that may be of interest to users.
But critics of league tables are largely jumping at shadows.
On the most part, producers of league tables take seriously their responsibility to make their comparisons as useful as possible for users — because it’s in their interest to do so. A listing of the country’s highest achieving schools typically represents exactly what’s labelled on the tin.
The fact that such a table doesn’t rank schools on how much students may have improved, how hard they tried in exams, or even how effective the teachers are, is neither here nor there. So long as any table represents what it says it does, there should be little begrudging its publication.
While there is hypothetically potential for harm from misuse of league tables, fears about that simply aren’t borne out in practice. The government’s review into the reporting of NAPLAN shows teachers and school leaders have witnessed virtually no adverse effects caused by league tables.
In any case, slapping a ban on trusted third parties’ use of league tables will only see less scrupulous parties fill the void in other forms. Worst still, preventing compilation of league tables based on reasonably objective and valid indicators — like NAPLAN results — means school choices will instead be made on anecdotes and other less reliable ones. Parents ultimately lose because they are making less informed choices.
And concerns about using NAPLAN as a basis for comparison can also be put to bed. While NAPLAN may be imperfect, successive reports show it is a reasonably good yardstick of student academic performance — since it correlates with school-leaving exams, which, in turn, correlates with post-school education outcomes. An imperfect indicator that’s perfectly transparent trumps a perfect indicator that’s imperfectly transparent.
In any case, hysteria about league tables appears to boil down to a fear parents will school-shop based on NAPLAN alone. Again, the government’s review shows parents rarely shift schools based on this reason only. And CIS research shows, while MySchool is an important resource for some parents, it is just one among many sources of information parents use in making school decisions. If anything, more parents would benefit from consulting MySchool — as parents who use it also say they’re more confident and satisfied with their chosen school.
We all have an interest in seeing that our education system is transparent and that parents can benefit from the information available to them. International evidence is clear that countries with more transparent reporting of school performance do better than those who put up walls to the public.
More and better information will help parents become more informed educational decision-makers. In this, the steps to provide parents help interpreting their child’s NAPLAN results, and in navigating various indicators on the MySchool website, is a truly positive one.
But demonising league tables is not constructive and waters down the transparency and competition within the school system that parents value.
Glenn Fahey is education research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of the CIS policy paper: What do parents want from schools?
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