Monday, 11 January 2016

NAPLAN testing and big edu-business

By Anna Hogan

NAPLAN testing is orchestrating a high-stakes environment in Australian schools where schools, teachers, students and even parents feel the pressure to perform and do well. Edu-businesses are capitalising on this high-stakes environment for commercial advantage.

Schools and governments now purchase products and services that are explicitly tied to test development and preparation, data analysis and management, remedial services and online content. American academic Patricia Burch, claims that the test industry in the USA is worth $48 billion per year. While it is difficult at this stage to put a precise figure on Australia’s test industry, it is increasingly obvious that the NAPLAN market is rapidly growing.

The NAPLAN market

The NAPLAN market includes practice tests, student workbooks, online programs, tutoring, teacher professional development, data analysis services for schools and so on. For example, the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) offers a number of progressive achievement tests (PAT) to provide norm-referenced information to teachers about their students. Schools often purchase a PAT test in Mathematics or English at a cost of $7.50 per student, and subsequently utilises this data to identify their student’s strengths and weakness in preparation for NAPLAN. Similarly, there are online resources like ‘StudyLadder’ or ‘Excel Test Zone’ that offer sample style NAPLAN questions to help students prepare for the test. There are also companies that target the insecurities of parents. Services such as ‘NAPLAN tutor’ offer a membership for $79 that will allow parents to access a range of NAPLAN tutorials. Private tutors also offer NAPLAN specific services.

Some edu-businesses now offer professional development and data analysis services to schools and teachers. For example, ‘Mighty Minds’, ‘Seven Steps’ and ‘Count on Numeracy’ all offer NAPLAN specific workshops. Seven Steps displays the following testimonial on its website: ‘Two of our teachers attended your seven steps seminar last year. They used the program in the Grade 3 cohort. Our NAPLAN results in those two grades were outstanding’. Similarly, Mind Matters suggests that its NAPLAN workshop will ‘focus on revising fundamental skills that are essential for students’ school careers and will prepare them for the NAPLAN test’. This type of marketing capitalises on the anxieties of schools and teachers.

Pearsonisation of NAPLAN

Pearson was among the edu-businesses that were contracted by the States and Territories in their delivery of NAPLAN. In 2012 every State contracted the printing and distribution of the NAPLAN tests to Pearson, with the exception of Queensland who contracted Fuji Xerox for this process. The actual testing of students occurs in schools under the direction of school staff and the subsequent marking of the test is a process overseen by most of the relevant educational authorities in the States and Territories. However, in New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, this process was also contracted to Pearson, and it became responsible for recruiting, training and paying NAPLAN test markers. For example, this contract is worth $41.6 million in NSW. This presents Pearson as a central agent in the NAPLAN policy network, and moreover, suggests it has significant contractual obligations with Commonwealth, State and Territory governments.

Other areas where edu-businesses is at work in Australia

Edu-businesses are at work elsewhere in Australia. They are also contracted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in the development of the test and the analysis and reporting of the results on My School. For example, in 2012, ACARA spent over $4 million contracting ACER, Pearson, Educational Measurement Solutions and Educational Assessment Australia for a range of services. Some of these services included item development ($2,075,717), trialling of the test items ($681,253), equating of the test items ($527,848) and analysis and reporting of the results ($610,247).

These increasing amounts of private business activity have caused concern amongst a number of social commentators who believe that education as a public activity, serving the public interest, should remain within the control of the public domain. Yet, the primary aim of involving edu-businesses seems to be to modernise the public sector and make it more effective. This, of course, is based on the assumption that market-oriented management will lead to greater cost efficiency and improved success for governments

Problems with the growing edu-business activity in Australia 

NAPLAN clearly represents the emergence of new ‘business opportunities’ in Australian education policy. Edu-business, from multinational corporations like Pearson to smaller national providers such as ACER now contribute to education policy and practice in various ways. In this environment ‘contractualism’ or partnerships between the public and the private sector have become the new normal. ACARA argues edu-businesses are an important and necessary component of developing NAPLAN and similarly, schools and teachers embed products and services from the private sector across all aspects of teaching and learning, particularly in regards to NAPLAN preparation.

My concern is that edu-businesses are increasingly contributing to policy development and teaching and learning practices in ways that have displaced traditional expertise. For example, according to ACARA, NAPLAN is delivered by ‘experts’ across the field. It seems problematic that experts in this case are not teachers, curriculum developers or even university researchers. Instead, experts are constituted by their ability to offer ‘value-for-money’ on competitive tender applications.

Edu-businesses are now closely associated with the role of policymaking and the state. What groups are becoming excluded from, and included in, processes of public policy?

Another concern I have is that the products and services schools and teachers are engaging with in preparation for NAPLAN are often shaped by ‘generalists’ with little classroom experience or formal research background in education. Many of these products are underpinned by agendas of profit making, not evidence.

Similarly, there are potential conflict of interest issues in which edu-businesses like Pearson are contracted to develop aspects of NAPLAN, but also create revenue through marking the NAPLAN test and the selling of resources to improve student’s NAPLAN results.

What can we do?

Of course, some of the work the private sector does is legitimate and important to how we deliver public education effectively. However, if edu-businesses continue to proliferate like they have in recent years, education has the potential to be monopolised by for-profit agendas. We must move beyond the rhetoric of edu-businesses in their promises to transform education and offer solutions to our problems. Instead, we have a responsibility to engage with the private sector more critically and make sure we protect public education and our expertise as deliverers of it.



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