The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UPFRONT -

Volk­swa­gen’s re­cent woes are a re­minder that when you set up a test­ing regime, it can have un­in­tended con­se­quences. The Ger­man gi­ant isn’t the only car maker with a flex­i­ble ap­proach to emis­sions test­ing. VW might have cheated a lot, us­ing soft­ware that knew how to fake it dur­ing a test, but in Europe, where pri­vate com­pa­nies do emis­sions tests, many car mak­ers cheat a lit­tle. They tape over body­work gaps, re­move wing mir­rors and take out weighty stereo sys­tems to im­prove re­sults. They cheat be­cause their goal is to ace the test, not make cleaner cars.

It’s a bit like NAPLAN, which is sup­posed to mea­sure lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy skills among school stu­dents. Emis­sions are prob­a­bly eas­ier to mea­sure ab­so­lutely than lit­er­acy or nu­mer­acy, and NAPLAN’s mak­ers at the Aus­tralian Cur­ricu­lum, As­sess­ment and Re­port­ing Author­ity have strug­gled might­ily with what a blunt in­stru­ment they’ve made.

Still, they pub­lish NAPLAN re­sults and send in­di­vid­ual kids their test scores, just like cars. This has made a grunt-level test of some as­pects of lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy into an ab­so­lute de­ter­mi­nant of a child’s skill lev­els at a given time. In­stead of be­ing one of sev­eral ways, it’s be­come the way. As a re­sult, just like car mak­ers, schools and teach­ers have started con­cen­trat­ing not on learn­ing, not even on lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy, but on try­ing to get bet­ter marks on the test. Some of them even cheat.

We’re highly crit­i­cal of schools that cheat on NAPLAN tests; the ones that tell some kids to stay home on NAPLAN days, or give out the an­swers. But ev­ery­one cheats a lit­tle, cram­ming kids full of what will be tested, at the ex­pense of other things, such as sci­ence, his­tory, the arts and even ac­tual lit­er­acy and nu­mer­acy skill de­vel­op­ment. When you fo­cus on test re­sults, peo­ple get busy fo­cus­ing on the test. You end up with kids who can do NAPLAN but can’t ac­tu­ally read, write and add up let alone think, an­a­lyse or cre­ate.

VW’s Golf ad cam­paign in Aus­tralia fea­tured a bright-eyed sales­man who takes the Golf to the bush. It has rev­o­lu­tion­ary sys­tems for cor­ner­ing and fuel-sav­ing at traf­fic lights, he tells us, and the gag is that they’re ir­rel­e­vant in the bush with its long, straight high­ways and traf­fic-light-free towns. Das Auto, the nar­ra­tor dead­pans, the car, “im­pres­sive al­most any­where”. Not so im­pres­sive any­where, as it turns out. What a shame.


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