First draft: my South Sydney Herald NAPLAN story.

Check the toilets and staff rooms

Novelist and teacher John Marsden has a simple formula for testing the quality of your local school. In The Sydney Morning Herald recently he wrote: “The quality of the lavatory facilities is the single best indicator of the respect in which children are held in a school; far better than any number of glossy brochures stuffed with photos carefully staged to show what the school believes will be most attractive to the customers they want to enrol. If you are able to talk your way into the staff room, make sure your nostrils are quivering and your senses on full alert. A drab staff room populated by dispirited teachers is a red alert.”

Now I haven’t carried out that test in our area, but I have been talking to some schools and people connected with schools in our area and beyond. Some would talk to me, some wouldn’t or couldn’t. I have also been delving into the My School Website and trying to understand exactly what it does offer, and what it does not.

One thing I can say for sure: reducing NAPLAN/My School to a league table is as silly as it gets. Dr Kim Jaggar, Principal of Sydney Boys High, told me last week that he hadn’t bothered to look at My School yet and only saw the league table because he happened to read the Herald on the day it was published. He agreed it was quite misleading, but on the other hand does find the socio-economic information based on student home addresses (schools can access this information anyway) quite interesting. This information is very much a work in progress, however. More is to be added to it.

It yields a magic number: “The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) is a special measure that enables meaningful and fair comparisons to be made across schools. The variables that make up ICSEA include socio-economic characteristics of the small areas where students live (in this case an ABS census collection district), as well as whether a school is in a regional or remote area, and the proportion of Indigenous students enrolled at the school. It has been developed specifically for the My School website for the purpose of identifying schools serving similar student populations. The average ICSEA value is 1000. Most schools have an ICSEA score between 900 and 1100. ICSEA should be interpreted with the assistance of the About ICSEA Fact Sheet, ICSEA Technical Paper and relevant FAQs.”

Did you get that? Some have noticed some rather odd things when that magic number is used in My School to find “statistically similar schools”. Cleveland Street Intensive English High School, for example, is set against “similar schools” not one of which has a profile remotely like Cleveland Street’s. Cleveland Street has, according to DET sources, 238 students of whom 130 are international full fee paying students with a certain minimum English language as tested by IELTS, the world’s leading test of English for education. The remainder may arrive with no English at all, sometimes from quite traumatic refugee backgrounds. It so happens that Cleveland Street gets remarkably respectable English literacy scores on NAPLAN, given its clientele, but they look “bad” in comparison with the “statistically similar schools.” Since in this case ICSEA really has done little more than process the students’ home addresses against census data on socioeconomic factors, one does wonder what sense of “similar” is at work here. The fact is Cleveland Street is an excellent school, but you wouldn’t think so after reading My School or, even worse, looking at its place in the “league table”.

A source in another Intensive English Centre confirmed that from his point of view the NAPLAN/My School information was quite useless. Comparisons between Year 7 and Year 9, for example, don’t mean much in an environment where students are only in the centre for one to three terms, most of them “just off the boat” from places like Sudan or Somalia in the case of this other IEC.

Then take those NAPLAN tests. All they give is a snapshot of certain skills on a certain day. It could be argued that the Year 7 results reflect the previous years in primary school rather than what has been happening in Year 7 –NAPLAN tests will be held from Tuesday 11 May to Thursday 13 May 2010. Note too there is little point in comparing the same school’s Year 7 and Year 9 results as these are two different cohorts. You will have to wait for the present Year 7 to reach Year 9 before you tentatively draw conclusions about “value adding”.

The test results also show hair’s breadth gradations. For a school to rank “100th” rather than “first” does not tell you anything about what the difference between first and 100th really means. It may well be very little. At SBHS Dr Jaggar also noted that the NAPLAN results – of course his school rates very well – and the results of the International Competitions and Assessments for Schools (which many local schools participate in) produce quite different “bests” in terms of individual students – a case of no single measure able to capture achievement in an utterly reliable way. NAPLAN does not include all that it really could in attempting to capture “literacy” and “numeracy”.

Looking at another local school, Darlington Public School, it is again apparent that the NAPLAN/My School information does not do the school justice.

Yes, there are useful things to do with NAPLAN, ICSEA and My School. There is the potential there for locating problem areas, which could provide a more reliable measure for allocating resources to disadvantaged schools. Certainly much of the information can help teachers shape programs to suit their students’ needs and community circumstances. But a tool for parents to use to choose a school, or to remove a child from a school? Only with great caution, and with much else taken into account. As for league tables? Utterly useless.

Former Rosebery resident Jim Belshaw draws in his blog on his years high up in the Australian public service at the level of policy and administration. Jim notes: “One major sub-text in the My School debate is the old question of performance measurement and the linked question of key performance indicators. I have been banging away at this one for a number of years in both my public policy and management writing. Indicators are not bad in themselves, but they can become quite pernicious when they become the central objective, crowding out other things.”

How true!

Neil Whitfield was an English and English as a Second Language teacher at Sydney Boys High School. His website has further discussion of some of these matters. Jim Belshaw’s blog is . Maralyn Parker has had several interesting columns on these matters in The Daily Telegraph: for example John Marsden’s article:


4 thoughts on “First draft: my South Sydney Herald NAPLAN story.

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