One of the few pleasing by-products of the COVID-19 pandemic was the cancellation of the annual NAPLAN examinations across Australia. Lockdown measures and school closures ensured the test would not go ahead. But why did it require a public health crisis for politicians to consider abandoning the sacred cow that is NAPLAN testing?

The most prominent injustice of the NAPLAN examination is the publication of its data on the My School website. The Murdoch press, quick to profit from the standardised test results of students as young as seven, formulates NAPLAN “league tables” each year in seemingly record time. These rankings, created using only the most superficial My School data, supposedly tell parents which schools are good and which are bad. But they highlight only what is widely known: schools in high socioeconomic areas outperform, for the most part, those in low socioeconomic areas. 

To say that the dull thud of the Courier Mail landing on the staff room table in the days following the release of NAPLAN results each year causes anxiety among our colleagues would be a gross understatement. This supposedly “low-stakes” examination has evolved into anything but for teachers, parents and students alike. A 2014 University of Melbourne study found that NAPLAN was causing high levels of anxiety among some students. Pressure from school administrators, parents and high schools requesting copies of NAPLAN results prior to letters of offer all contribute to stress among children sitting the test. 

Alongside this burden to perform in national tests, which is carried by students from the age of seven, comes the associated pollution of their weekly timetable with NAPLAN-related preparation activities. The NAPLAN exams are entirely unfamiliar modes of external examination, so students engage in pedantic tasks ranging from learning how to shade a multiple-choice box to the monotonous, formulaic retelling of a story. The already overcrowded Australian curriculum is hijacked by “teaching to the test” lessons, and in some cases entire units of persuasive and narrative writing are rearranged across the school year to coincide with NAPLAN. 

If students are anxious about the usurping of their day-to-day timetable by the pressure of an impending NAPLAN exam, what can be said for the teachers instructing them? Our workload is already so high that attrition rates among those in their first five years of the profession are 30-50 percent. One of the greatest joys of being an educator is taking the prescribed curriculum and moulding and transforming it to fit the diverse range of needs in any given group of students. Where is the consideration for diversity in NAPLAN? Of course, there is no room for it. 

The data itself does not tell us anything we don’t already know about our students, but it is routinely altered by school administrators to improve average scores. Principals have the power to withdraw students with additional needs from participating in the exam. Schools run additional programs that take some students out of their regular classrooms and put them into separate NAPLAN-focused training. They miss out on hours of classroom content.

While state and federal governments plan to maintain and extend NAPLAN, state school teachers in Queensland will be taking industrial action to put a halt to the whole testing regime. Queensland Teachers Union members have voted overwhelmingly to boycott administering the NAPLAN test and all associated planning in 2021. 

The QTU, while dominant in state schools, has not taken statewide industrial action for more than a decade, protected or otherwise. This will be a crucial step in building member confidence. And fighting this hated, competitive test puts us on favourable ground with parents and students, as well as encouraging other teacher unions to do the same. 

While popular with the community, our action will involve a stoush, as both the Labor and Liberal parties are heavily invested in the nationwide standardised testing. In response to the announcement from the QTU, state Labor Education Minister Grace Grace said that our proposed action is “to the detriment of Queensland students”. But NAPLAN is itself detrimental to students, while direct action raises the possibility of making meaningful improvements to student wellbeing and staff workloads. 

Our union leaders must show resolve and not buckle to threats of legal injunctions against what will be unprotected action. Countless union battles, as recently as 2012, when Victorian nurses defended patient ratios, demonstrate that workers can win by defying the rulings of courts and governments, as long as they maintain their action and resolve.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said, “The Queensland Teachers Union don’t run the schools in Queensland”. But we are the ones who make the schools run every day, so why shouldn’t we run the schools?