View from here - Uproar over tests Down Under

14th May 2010 at 01:00
Teachers boycotting national exams over league tables? It's also happening in Australia, as Geoff Maslen reports

Educators warned it would happen and now it has: newspapers have begun using a website created by the federal government to publish "league tables" of Australian schools.

The My School website was launched by federal Education Minister Julia Gillard in January and provides national literacy and numeracy test results for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 for every school across the land.

The site is supposed to enable comparisons to be made between schools with similar socio-economic profiles, thereby informing parents how well the school they send their children to is performing. Literacy and numeracy are obviously crucial to success at school, but whether the ability to read or do arithmetical calculations are the sole measures of a good school is debatable.

In any case, as teachers feared, The Australian broadsheet newspaper earlier this month splashed its front page with a report declaring "The nation's top schools". The news report, headed "National survey ranks our best classrooms" was followed by four more pages listing every one of the "top 100" primary and "top 100" secondary schools.

Alarmed by the prospect of impoverished schools being "named and shamed", as happened in Britain, the Australian Education Union decided to boycott this year's nationwide tests which were to be conducted this month.

A union meeting voted for a boycott of the tests after the government refused to consider a compromise that would prevent league tables being created. Under the union plan, the results of every student would be published on the My School website, rather than an average figure as at present.

Union president Angelo Gavrielatos said teachers would not hand out the tests until the government acted to stop the results being used "to publicly brand students and schools as failures in league tables".

Ms Gillard condemned the union's move as a "selfish bid to impose its ideology on parents and students".

Across the nation, state governments threatened their teachers with fines if they followed the union's call to boycott the tests.

In the meantime, private schools said they would proceed with the tests, although the independent schools union said it would launch a protest campaign against the My School website, rather than imposing a ban.

The lists of schools published by Rupert Murdoch's The Australian were compiled by academics at the University of New South Wales, who were said to be experts in testing and reporting. Not surprisingly, the top ten was made up of either wealthy private or selective government schools.

The Australian acknowledged this, noting that "money not brains is the most important factor when it comes to getting a good education".

"Your family and where you grow up matter more than intelligence when it comes to how successful you will be at school and later in life," the paper declared. "That is why Ms Gillard has pursued My School to end the idea that demography is destiny."

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