Friday, January 29, 2010

Media reactions to the My School web site

Yesterday morning in Australia's new My School web site goes live - more or less, I provided some preliminary comments on the data contained in the site and the way in which it might be used. This morning instead of doing more analysis on the site itself, I thought that it might be interesting to look at some of the media reporting across the country. Here I see that the comparative/competitive streak is alive and well in Australia.

Up in the Clarence Valley in Northern NSW, the Grafton Daily Examiner compiled the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy) results from almost all of the Clarence Valley’s 34 schools into a graph. Sadly, the graph itself is not available.

Reactions from school principals in the Valley were generally cautious.

The paper quoted McAuley Catholic College principal Leon Walsh as saying that there was a real danger that subjects not tested by NAPLAN, such as art, history and music, would suffer while schools put potentially unbalanced focus on numeracy and literacy to satisfy the testing process. A primary school principal, who asked not to be named, said the figures were based on one test on one day in the life of each student and did not reflect the whole picture. Another principal said the NAPLAN tests were open to manipulation by unscrupulous teachers who may ‘give’ the answers to students to prop up the school’s results or offer poorer performing students the day off on test day.

This is something that I have written on before quite extensively, the way in which this type of test can twist things simply because you force people to focus on the measured. The most classic case here is actually law firms who focus on billable hours and then complain that other things like marketing don't get done.

In other comments, Liza Bloomer, of Grafton, whose nine-year-old son Sam attends St Mary’s Primary School, Grafton, supported the MySchool website, saying it may help government and the community identify areas where resources needed to be improved. This actually links to a point I made yesterday, the way in which the site may affect allocation of spending. Resources are limited, so the site is actually likely to reinforce moves to redistribute spend towards areas of poorer performance.

Here I noticed from the Northern Daily Leader (Tamworth) that  NSW opposition spokesperson for education Adrian Piccoli has been slamming the State Government for failing to provide disadvantaged schools in the New England region (New England in this case means the Northern Tablelands and North Western Slopes and Plains) the resources required to improve students’ literacy and numeracy skills.

According to the paper, documents obtained by the Liberals and Nationals under freedom of information have indicated New England schools have received the least funding under the Government’s Best Start Program, despite having the highest proportion of students not meeting minimum education benchmarks.

In the region, about 8-12 per cent of Year 3 students are not meeting the minimum standards in literacy and numeracy, yet the region has only received $74,000 over the past three years under the $15.2m Reading Recovery program.

The new web site will certainly reinforce this type of argument.

Staying in Tamworth, the NDL had quite extensive coverage (not all on line) including an editorial that took a side-swipe at we bloggers. I quote:

This is one occasion where – if they were allowed – the mainstream media could provide expert interpretation and commentary.

In the absence of that, look out for a deluge of ill-informed blogger comment from a website near you soon.

Ouch! I wonder if they were talking about me?

Tamworth reactions were again mixed, and not dissimilar to those in the Clarence. 

Returning briefly to the Clarence, there staff at St Joseph’s Primary School, South Grafton were investigating why figures from that school were not available on the My School website. This type of error is inevitable in such a huge site attempting to cover all of Australia's schools, including the very small.

Speaking of the very small, in a story in The Australian, Site comparisons just don't add up, Chip Le Grand and Justine Ferrari begin their coverage:

DARGO Primary School is less a school than an abandoned building. Last year it had one student. This year it has none.

Yet according to My School, it is statistically similar to privately operated Camberwell Grammar, with 12,055 enrolments in Melbourne's inner east.

The story deals with the use of the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) to group schools for comparative purposes. I briefly discussed the use of these type of indices in Use and abuse of socio-economic rankings in public policy.

In this case, Le Grand and Ferrari point to some of the very strange combinations that can result.  As an example, Geelong Grammar, which has the most expensive school fees in the nation at more than $26,000 for Year 12, has been grouped with Kangaroo Ground Primary, a small government school of fewer than 150 students on the semi-rural outskirts of Melbourne, and Arthurs Creek school, with about 70 students.

Staying with The Australian's coverage, the paper also looks at what the site tells us about private vs public education. For the benefit of readers outside Australia, all Australian state governments provide universal public education open to all. In recent years, the private sector has grown quite rapidly at the expense of the public sector, due in part to perceived weaknesses in public education, as well as a structural bias in Commonwealth Government that favours private schools.

The various league tables prepared by newspapers based on year twelve results have in fact always shown mixed results. However, and accepting that NAPLAN is a very narrow performance measure, the My School site does allow more broadly based comparisons for the first time.

In The Australian, Lanai Vasek's story, Site tests family's view on public option, begins:

FOR Penelope and Dean Anastasiadis, sending their children, Elizabeth, 9, and Nicholas, 4, to a government-run high school was never on their radar.

But that changed yesterday when Ms Anastasiadis, of Melbourne, logged on to the My School website.

She discovered the test results of the public high school in the family's local area of Glen Iris - Canterbury Girls Secondary College - were similar, and in several cases better than, the private girls schools they were considering for Elizabeth.In a

The impact of the site on public vs private education is explored further in another Australian piece by Education writer Justine Ferrari, Focus falls on big-fee schools as parents get reality check. Again, the issue is the same. Overall, while the comparisons generated may adversely affect some public schools, they could well increase the competitive position of public education as a whole.

The Australian also has a PDF setting out some comparisons. My first reaction on reading this, mind you, was one of caution because you actually have to know the schools.

Both the Australian and its stable mate the Brisbane Courier Mail are supporters of the web site. In the Australian in Parents are hungry for information on schools, Ebru Yaman reports on the paper's earlier attempts to generate comparative data, while the Courier Mail has a strongly supportive editorial in  Australian community deserves to know more about schools.

The paper also has a Q&A session with Federal Minister Julia Gillard that is actually quite useful in telling us something about her views as to how the system is intended to work.

I will comment on this in another post. However, at this stage that one of the difficulties relates to the real choices available to parents and the way those parents respond.

In a story to which I do not have a link, the Isolated Children's Parents' Association warned parents about problems that could arise if they moved kids from local to boarding schools as a consequence of the tests. In NSW, and based on my own experience there is already a problem with parent's actually falsifying residential addresses to get into particular state schools well regarded state schools. 

As you might expect, the Courier Mail reporting has a strongly Queensland focus. The story My School shows where Queensland schools must improve begins:

THE controversial My School website has exposed where Queensland needs to lift its lagging literacy and numeracy results most - in state schools, nearly all primaries and among indigenous students.

We have to be a little careful here. My understanding is that differences in the state education systems actually make this type of cross-state comparison difficult.

Returning to NSW, the Sydney Morning Herald has done just what everybody feared, creating a school league table showing the top fifty primary and secondary schools in the state using NAPLAN measures. The paper also provides an alphabetical list of primary and secondary schools throughout the state with their scores and overall rankings. The paper's justification is free speech.      

This data is actually quite useful to me, but is still going to be misused.

In this context, I had to feel for Stubborn Mule, my favourite statistical nut blogger. As reported on Twitter, his attempts to data scrape the My School web site so that he could run tests on the data were defeated by Java problems. The big media organisations had the resources  to overcome this. 

I am out of time this morning. I suspect that I am going to return to this issue. It's just so interesting.

Signing off this deluge as one of those Northern Daily Leader bloggers near you!


Neil said...

Well done. See my supplement to your hard work.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil. As you realised, the post took several hours to write!

Legal Eagle said...

Very interesting, Jim.

sbo said...

Good website! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the data are well wrisbobet
+tten. I’m wondering how I could be notified when a new post has been made. I hsbo ave subscribed to your RSS which must do the trick! Have a great day!