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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