SCHOOL improvement is being held back because many teachers lack confidence and skills to analyse NAPLAN student test data, according to one of Australia's top education bureaucrats.
Michele Bruniges, the New South Wales director-general of education, also says the concept of school improvement has become entangled with an ideological debate about assessment data such as NAPLAN.
''The significant risk of this is that data per se become devalued, particularly in the eyes of teachers,'' says Dr Bruniges, in a speech to be delivered today at a national education conference.
''Effective use of data by teachers is, however, the crux of school improvement. For student outcomes to improve, teachers need an accurate understanding of individual students' strengths and weaknesses.''
Dr Bruniges is a keynote speaker at a conference on school improvement, hosted by the Australian Council for Educational Research in Sydney.
National literacy and numeracy tests, known as NAPLAN tests are held yearly for students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The federal government introduced the tests in 2008 to measure school performance and direct extra resources to those with large numbers of children failing to meet the standards.
NAPLAN results are published on the My School website.
Critics of NAPLAN, including parent groups, teachers and academics, complain that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum by putting too much pressure on students and teachers to perform well in the tests.
But, Dr Bruniges says, education has become a high-stakes enterprise because it is the key driver of economic growth and social equality.
Higher levels of education are linked with work, salary and other benefits such as health.
Dr Bruniges says progress in encouraging teachers to use the NAPLAN data has been patchy.
A pilot study by Melbourne University researchers of 84 Victorian high school teachers found 18 per cent chose not to use the data. The teachers cited lack of time, negative perceptions of its value and lack of confidence.
Helen Chick, co-author of the pilot study, says it was carried out in 2009, when NAPLAN testing was in its early stages.
Last year, Associate Professor Chick and fellow researcher, Associate Professor Robyn Pierce, carried out a larger study of the attitudes of 700 Victorian primary and secondary school teachers. They found teachers were more confident about using the data.
Eighty per cent of teachers in the 2011 study thought the data useful for overall school planning. But there was ambivalence about whether it was relevant to individual teaching.
Fifty-six per cent of teachers found the data useful in the classroom, while 13 per cent said it was not relevant and 31 per cent were neutral about whether it made a difference to their teaching.