Why NAPLAN isn’t the villain the Minister claims it to be

Pamela Blakeley 12 September 2018 3

Our students are burdened by over-assessment, not traumatised by NAPLAN.

Yvette Berry, the ACT Minister for Education, wrote in the Canberra Times in March 2018 that NAPLAN had ‘become a trigger for stress, anxiety and depression among young people fearful of letting someone down, as opposed to a constructive tool for learning.’ This is probably the main charge against NAPLAN although there are many. NAPLAN is in the spotlight, especially in Canberra which is now leading the charge to get rid of it.

Is there a case to be made for NAPLAN? There is – but we’re not hearing it.

Does NAPLAN create too much stress for students? I think it does, because it comes on top of the existing load of school assessment.

As a teacher I was often disturbed by the heavy weight of school-based assessment that high school and college students are burdened with, 30 or more tasks a year, spread over the various subjects. It often felt as though there was not enough time to provide the teaching/learning experiences required to support so much assessment, let alone create an atmosphere where learning was enjoyable for intrinsic reasons. Parents often commented on the strain that families were put under as their children struggled to complete never-ending assessment tasks at home.

In comparison, a student will sit NAPLAN once every two years between years 3 and 9, a grand total of four times.

Schools and parents are concerned about the stress and mental health of their students and could have a closer look at the assessment load that students are living with every day. If parents think assessment has gone too far, they’re right and should question where the heavy pressure is coming from. A school could get rid of much of their own piecemeal assessments and use NAPLAN results to plan the curriculum and track student progress. As data, it is valid, reliable, and impartial.

Is the time and cost of NAPLAN onerous for schools? NAPLAN is financially a bargain for ACT schools, with the cost being borne at the national level. No school in Australia is charged for services which are worth many thousands of dollars per school and yield extensive diagnostic and achievement information on each student, and for that matter, on each question in NAPLAN.

NAPLAN is prepared and printed centrally, then delivered to each school and later collected by courier. It is marked externally to the school. Student certificates of achievement are delivered for the school to issue to parents. All the diagnostic and other data comes on-line.

The only ‘cost’ to the school is in actually administering the tests which involves effort but no real cost, just special staffing arrangements, as half the student body each year sits the short tests in reading, writing, numeracy and grammar/punctuation, over three mornings in a row. This is also a very small time loss for an individual student once every two years.

In terms of time and cost, NAPLAN represents a rare example of real support at the school-level in carrying out one of its core businesses – assessment. There is no escaping the fact that assessment rules. Look at the assessment practices at your local school.

NAPLAN tests and resulting data are of a high quality and created by experienced teachers who have the time and support to do a really good job. Everything is prepared, checked and moderated to a high standard and yields an outstanding amount of diagnostic and personalised information.

Are educational standards declining because of all the time spent preparing for NAPLAN? This is a really interesting one.

Some media reports have suggested that schools are tending to spend a lot of time teaching to the NAPLAN test, detracting from real learning.

Remember that NAPLAN tests are new each year and required to be unopened by the school until the morning they are issued to students. No-one in a school knows what the questions in any of the tests will be. It is not possible to drill a class in NAPLAN.

The good choice for a teacher is to do what they are supposed to do; teach the Australian Curriculum, with emphasis on the literacy and numeracy elements. May I emphasise that this, which elevates a student’s level of success in NAPLAN, is exactly what school teachers all round Australia are supposed to be doing? To prepare a student for NAPLAN means to teach great lessons based on the Australian Curriculum. There is no clash here.

The preparation for NAPLAN is often quite a perfunctory affair as indeed it is supposed to be. The Principal’s Administration Manual, which sets out the arrangements for NAPLAN so as to ensure that test conditions are similar for all students across Australia, has to be signed off as complied with, at the end of testing days. It states clearly that students are to be aware of the tests and to be prepared for them in simple ways such as how long they are, how to show corrections and fill in the cover sheet. This can be dealt with in a short practice session. More than this is not required.

Then what is causing declining educational standards? If educational standards are declining in Australia, I believe it’s because teachers are worn out. The job description is unsustainable. Teachers are expected to spend most of the day in face-to-face teaching and playground duties. An hour or two a day is allowed for lesson preparation, writing and marking the many assessments, finding resources, looking after technology, dealing with individual students and parents, and going to meetings and more meetings. I left out that teachers have to complete professional development, try and grab some lunch and write lots of reports. New teachers will also spend time trying to find a permanent job.

If what teachers really do was genuinely recognised, I hope the public would be shocked. It’s first-world slavery.

What is the solution? Slash the number of face-to-face hours and give teachers the opportunity to prepare and deliver great lessons. Let them enjoy their tuna salads and feel their blood pressure go down. And it would be a great innovation if teachers could get paid study leave like other public servants, so they could sometimes go off and learn something new to bring back to their teaching.

We hear that Australian governments are spending increasing amounts of money on education. It has to be asked why none of this seems to be making a significant difference and where is it going. It doesn’t seem to be going where it is needed. We need to recognise that teachers are absolutely key people in schooling and need workable arrangements in order to do their job. Getting rid of NAPLAN will not make a difference to teacher workloads.

Is ACARA in business with global companies to provide NAPLAN? ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) subcontracts some parts of the process to companies like Pearson, who deliver and collect test papers from locations all round Australia.

Is this surprising? No. Education is big business as we know. About 40 per cent of Australian children attend private schools. School lobby groups are currently slogging it out to get favourable deals out of the Federal Government under Gonski 2.

Should standardised testing be avoided? Standardised testing has a bad name especially in the US where poor results can lead to the sacking of principals and the closure of schools.

NAPLAN is a standardised test but was intended as a diagnostic tool, and it does provide schools with a lot of rich data. For parents and students, it is a rare chance to see information about a child’s progress as assessed outside the school and across a diverse national cohort.

Also, NAPLAN has become closely linked to the Australian Curriculum and provides the only evidence that it is being taught in Australian schools.

Isn’t NAPLAN just a basic skills test in literacy and numeracy? Take out the word ‘basic’. It’s time to realise the nature and importance of literacy and numeracy skills, which as we know are specified in the Australian Curriculum for each stage of schooling. The Australian Curriculum is online at www.australiancurriculum.

NAPLAN is a very different type of assessment to those provided by schools which feed into a general subject grade and which are, by high school, strongly focused on subject information. School assessments often have long timelines of several weeks, and may involve considerable input from teachers, librarians and parents.

In the NAPLAN Reading Test, students are presented with unseen texts drawn from history, literature, science, art and more, and are asked to, for example, show that they can identify the main idea, know the difference between a fact and an opinion, draw an inference and see what the writer’s purpose is.

The Writing Test, 50 minutes long, is a first-draft response and provides an open-ended topic. It assesses the student’s skill in providing logical ideas for a particular purpose, using the conventions of writing. Each piece of writing is assessed individually on a line-by-line basis.

The idea is that these skills allow a student to engage with and unlock new material, and are the building blocks of critical thinking and independent learning.

Schools would be wise to embrace NAPLAN. It does a big job that is beyond the capacity of an individual school and it gives them information that they really need.

What is the problem with NAPLAN in the ACT? Students in the ACT generally do well at NAPLAN in terms of national means. However Canberra is a high socio-economic area and when Canberra schools are matched with similar schools in the rest of Australia, the results are not good.

The ACT Auditor-General looked into this in 2017 and concluded that there was a systemic problem in ACT schools in the analysis and effective use of student performance information.

In 2018 Professor Andrew Macintosh and Debra Wilkinson of the ANU looked into the issue and called for a public inquiry into the continued underperformance of public and private schools in the ACT, particularly at the high school level.

In 2018, the ACT Legislative Assembly standing committee held an inquiry into the use of standardised testing, including NAPLAN. Submissions are available on its website.

Various expert bodies are currently engaged in looking at this puzzling problem.

In conclusion, it is time to look at the broader context in which NAPLAN operates.

Pamela Blakeley is a former teacher and literacy consultant in the ACT.

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One Response to Why NAPLAN isn’t the villain the Minister claims it to be
Robyn Baker Robyn Baker 11:07 am 14 Sep 18

Naplan should not be putting stress on children. It is not a test to see how the individual is performing, it is a test to see if the curriculum is working or where there maybe shortfalls in the curriculum. It should just be another day at school for the kids. Alot of the stress in the kids for naplan comes from parents and home. Tests, exams and assessments are a part of a students life, no different to any other day. I simply do not understand why naplan is treated any differently by parents or the school, and most schools do not treat it differently. My kids are not stressed over naplan, they dont even mention it, it is just another school day and they know they may do well and they may not. It is not what defines them and this needs to be coming from the home environment.

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