NAPLAN testing is scheduled this week (from May 15 to 17) in schools around the country. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA), as well as proponents of NAPLAN, make three central claims extolling the usefulness of this high-stakes test.

More like WAAAAA-aaaplan. Picture: Thinkstock

First, they claim NAPLAN will tell us that the tests are important to assess the quality of teaching in our children’s schools. Second, they will assure us that the tests can diagnose academic issues our children may be struggling with. Third, they will confirm that the purpose of NAPLAN is to maintain Australia’s high levels of literacy and numeracy in comparison to other countries in the world.

ACARA and the proponents of NAPLAN (including our education ministers) will not tell you that there almost a complete lack of evidence to support those three claims.

They will also avoid the substantial evidence, both from overseas and increasingly within Australia, that suggests that not only is NAPLAN not able to do those things, but it is unreliable, a poor diagnostic instrument, ‘dumbs down’ Australian curriculum and children’s education, has a negative impact on student wellbeing, and reduces teacher’s capacity to develop both themselves and their students.

Professor John Polesel from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education recently published a review of the evidence related to the effects and effectiveness of high-stakes tests, such as NAPLAN. He reports evidence indicating technical unreliability, an inability to measure students’ actual learning, and wide margins of error that effectively make NAPLAN unreliable.

Moreover, as a diagnostic tool, NAPLAN is literally worthless. The head of ACARA, Peter Hill, admitted as much to a 2010 Senate References Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations when he stated that NAPLAN tests cannot be used as a diagnostic tool, in part due to the five-month time lag between the time the students take the test and the time the test results are delivered.

NAPLAN is not only unreliable and an ineffective, blunt diagnostic tool. The evidence is increasing that it harms children’s learning. The Queensland Studies Authority state that this testing encourages “methods of teaching that promote shallow and superficial learning rather than deep conceptual understanding and the kinds of complex knowledge and skills needed in modern, information-based societies.”

In short, context is removed, and children simply learn a list of facts or formulas to get at the right answer as fast as possible. Such an approach misses the point of education. Yes, the answers are important. However, the process of acquiring the answer should enrich understanding and development.

The data are in on teacher’s approaches to teaching when standardised high-stakes testing is introduced. The news is bad again. As the stakes go up, teachers take centre-stage in the learning process.

Student-centred learning is dismissed as too time consuming as teachers focus on teaching to the test. Australian evidence points to schools reducing children’s opportunity for broadening, enriching educational experiences in science, sport, music, and the arts. Excursions, major events, and even recess or lunch are curtailed to get more NAPLAN practice in.

And evidence also points to NAPLAN reducing student opportunity for special interest projects and collaborative work in deference to competition, individualism, and practice tests. In short, the curriculum is narrowing, and teachers are understandably focused on what gets measured at the expense of other things that should also matter.

Lastly, researchers have found strong evidence that student wellbeing is harmed by such high-stakes testing. While Australian research is limited, overseas data for similar tests shows this testing increases distress for children as young as eight years old through decreased self-esteem, physiological difficulties including lack of sleep, headaches, and vomiting, and emotional and behavioural problems.

As Professor Polesel points out, why are Australia’s parents so willing to send their children to a school where they are so stressed they have headaches and vomit? Aren’t schools supposed to be a place of nurturing and learning?

With so much evidence demonstrating that NAPLAN does not meet its stated aims, and with even more evidence showing the negative impact of high-stakes standardised testing, why do both sides of government persist in promoting NAPLAN as an integral part of our curriculum?

A large percentage of Australia’s parents have unquestionably accepted the government’s position that NAPLAN is good for education, good for teachers, and good for students. While the test is still some months away, parents of children as young as eight years old are paying for extra tutoring, putting their children through practice tests, and offering bribes and goodies to ‘motivate’ their children to do well at NAPLAN.

In November, an eight year-old in grade 3 is going to get a NAPLAN result that says “below average”. The result will be shown on a scale indicating where most children his age are, and where he presently sits – at the bottom of the continuum. Parents and teachers will promise to support him. But in most cases, he will only understand one message. “You are a failure.”

While it may be true at that point in time, no eight-year old needs to be labelled a failure. Neither do children in grades 5, 7, or 9. Of course the teachers and parents may have already known this. But now he does too.

NAPLAN is setting up our teachers for failure, our schools for failure, and most importantly, it is setting up our children for failure, both in the short term and the long term.

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41 comments

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    • Tedd says:

      06:50am | 14/05/12

      Excellent article!

      Why does society still have a pervasive acceptance of assertions without evidence; especially assertions by Minister-appointed-“authorities”?

    • morrgo says:

      09:27am | 14/05/12

      Society accepts the assertions about Naplan because they make some instinctive sense.  In contrast, society has experienced the dismal failure of the educational industry in achieving a decline of basic skills by pursuing a long list of expensive de-rigeour pedagogical innovations that uproot the curriculum every five years. 

      Naplan is like democracy: a poor second-best where there is no first-best.

    • Maggie says:

      07:12am | 14/05/12

      AND if our low students do well in the test, our support funding gets cut. So the best outcome for our school is for our top kids to do well in the test and our bottom kids to stay where they are (or get worse) so we can improve our results and maintain our funding.

    • Fiddler says:

      07:38am | 14/05/12

      (half) off topic, has anyone noticed the drastic dumbing down of schools? I’m 31, but have a 12 year old who is in year 7 and the Maths, English and Science she is doing seems to be nowhere near the level I did only 19 years ago. She’s nealry halfway through year 7 and her grade hasn’t even started doing algebra yet.

    • Tedd says:

      08:43am | 14/05/12

      What state are you in, Fiddler?

      My yr 7 (NSW) did advanced English @ primary, fairly advanced primary Math, and the primary Science seemed OK.  Getting interested in science in secondary, tho’.

    • M says:

      10:18am | 14/05/12

      I only started doing algebra in year 7, 2001.

      Apparently my parents were doing it before they turned 10.

    • JTZ says:

      10:40am | 14/05/12

      @Fiddler I am with you there 100%. I am 30 and I remember reading Romeo and Juliet, Great Gaysby and other books on that line.

      Now my younger brother is in high school and all they read are articles from magazines and watch movies. Srsly WTF.

    • Vicky says:

      02:51pm | 14/05/12

      I am in year 8 in WA and did algebra from year 6.

      @JTZ - I am doing a midsummer nights dream, and have done Charles Dickens, and various other pieces of literature. But, I am in English extension, perhaps your brother is not good at english…

      NAPLAN is easy, so whats the problem? It’s preparing us for test conditions. I’m 13, that’s my belief.

    • Carz says:

      07:39am | 14/05/12

      I don’t mind the NAPLANs, as a method of assessment, although I don’t believe that they give a true picture of a child’s educational ability and I object to the amount of time spent practicing for them. We don’t make out HSC students do practice tests for three months in the lead up to exams; we teach them what they need to know to pass them.

    • Amy J says:

      07:47am | 14/05/12

      Expect more of this sort of hysteria as the tests approach, are sat, and the sky once again obstinately refuses to fall in. This co-ordinated anti-NAPLAN campaign is the work of a bunch of teachers’ union and academic hacks who on the one hand want teachers to be treated as professionals (good, I agree completely!) but then don’t want the sort of professional accountability that comes from being able to see how teachers and schools are doing. Competition is not a dirty word, and the real world is not some pee-wee football team where no one is allowed to keep score.

      To put it another way, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And the grubs in the unions would rather not be managed or measured at all.

    • Justin Coulson says:

      10:12am | 14/05/12

      Amy J

      You’re right that it’s hard to manage things if we don’t measure them. The real issue is that we’re not measuring teacher performance (or student learning) effectively. That’s the problem with NAPLAN and similar high-stakes tests.

      I’m all for teachers being accountable. But NAPLAN is an ineffective tool for managing such accountability.

    • Draconian says:

      08:00am | 14/05/12

      When I was working at Queensland Studies Authority, I viewed some of the Year 9 NAPLAN tests.  There was one question that was worded so badly that it didn’t even make sense.  If an adult can’t make head nor tail of a question, how is a 14 year old supposed to?  These tests are a waste of everyone’s time.

    • Measurement says:

      09:17am | 14/05/12

      Not all adults have the mental capacity of a normal 14 year old. If you didn’t get it, try reading it again, or ask for help.

      Methinks there is too much protesting going on. The tests sound good to me. There must be a way to measure how effectively our children are being taught.

    • Draconian says:

      03:42pm | 14/05/12

      Believe me Measurement. I did read it more than half a dozen times.  My test team and I even printed it on the white board, inserted commas, full stops, took out plurals - anything to make it readable.  Didn’t work.  We then took it to one of the science teachers who was working at QSA, even he couldn’t understand the question.

    • Waz says:

      10:05pm | 14/05/12

      Draconian, what happened to them?
      I mean the people (er sorry, it’s an Ed dept - so probably a a large, very prolonged and multi-layered committee), who wrote that incomprehensible question?
      Did all of you in the Qld Studies Board raised hell over such incompetence, until they were all rapidly shown the door, before they could do yet more damage? Did anyone?
      The problem is, in Ed Depts, most of ht etime nothing happens. Which is why we so desperately need Naplan, and the overwhelming majority of Australians want them. And that same majority wants rapid action taken against those who can’t perform, just as happens in everyone elses job.

    • Cat says:

      08:34am | 14/05/12

      Children would do much better in schools if more time was spent on the basic fundamentals of learning. Instead of attempting to keep children constantly entertained through the learning process they should be made to understand that school is their “work”, that it will sometimes be boring, that it will require an effort, that it will sometimes be very hard work. They need to be told that “you need to know this” and be required to learn it. Add a layer of problem solving skills and school can become an interesting place. No, it will not be constantly exciting and entertaining - but life if not that either.
      The NAPLAN tests do not allow for this but the classroom philosophy followed by far too many teachers (with support from parents) does not allow for it either.
      School should be a preparation for life not a production line or an entertainment centre.

    • sha says:

      08:38am | 14/05/12

      Myson with aspergers doesn’t sit it at all.Its just for statistic purposes I think.

    • Rosie says:

      08:57am | 14/05/12

      This is an excellent article and one that the LNP should read and repeal to add to their much needed savings. Correct me if I am wrong but isn’t Naplan a Julia Gillard rushed of the blood to the brain idea so has to say the Labor Party was about doing something for the betterment of our children’s education!

      It is repetitive learning so the kids that have bought the Naplan text books and have practiced the texts will do well. Naplan has nothing to do with improving the children’s education it is all to do with the Govt gauging the top schools from the bottom schools. We know that real estate has a lot to do with the results - top schools in high real estate suburbs and bottom schools in low real estate suburbs.

    • Moreplans says:

      09:37am | 14/05/12

      Actually Rosie
      I think ALL your posts are a result of a “rush of blood to the brain”

      Too bad you couldn’t find the wherewithal to include a reference to a childless living in sin atheist. After all, that is your style and is the base from which your comments emanate.

    • JT says:

      11:03am | 14/05/12

      I’m sorry but don’t we all learn with repitition? meaning the more you do something the more you know it? like touch typing or knitting or reading and writing skills, maths, adding etc. I don’t have a problem with repetitive learning as isn’t that the point?

    • Ben C says:

      11:25am | 14/05/12

      @ JT

      Repetitive learning is good for those subjects with strict rules, like mathematics - you do equations over and over again, following the same methods and you’ll get the right answers. It wouldn’t work so well with English, where a line of text can take on different meanings depending on expression, and especially when in the HSC they focus on stuff like themes, context - stuff that can be quite subjective.

    • Chris says:

      11:39am | 14/05/12

      @ JT and Others,

      The issue isn’t whether repetition assists learning - clearly in some cases it does.  But if the foundation of your education is about repetition rather than thinking, then we are not creating in our children the incentive to think for themselves.

      The people who have made the most dramatic changes to our society in terms of discovery and invention are not those who repeat - they are those who think.

      The secondary issue is that focusing on repetition is DEAD BORING.  If ever there was a way of getting kids to hate learning, its by all of their days being filled with repetition.  Hating learning because it’s boring is the starting point for children to see school as a chore, rather than as a joy.

      Remember how exciting you (or your kids) found kindy or grade 1?  The intellectual torpor that kids succomb to in the following years is not, I submit, a natural consequence of getting older but is a result of how they are being taught.

      Chris

    • Rosie says:

      11:48am | 14/05/12

      Moreplans

      Did you read the article or did you just see the name Rosie and “rush of blood to the brain” blasted away on the keyboard?

      FYI I have been volunteering at different primary schools here in South Australia and QLD for the last 3 years helping children that in some cases 2/3 years behind in their learning. Here in South Australia I was a LAP volunteer - The Learning Assistance Programme which is a student-centred programme providing individual support for students through the positive participation of volunteers. Volunteers, in partnership with teaching staff, work with students on a one-to-one basis.

      I strongly believe any Govt should look into this programme. In case you can’t be bothered looking up and reading the provided link I shall type out for you and others why LAP should replace NAPLAN. Not copy and paste but typing it. Repetitive typing to improve my typing skills.

      When you are young, learning can be a delight or a difficulty. Some young people are challenged by their inability to express themselves or they hide their feelings behind a shield of doubt. Some have a feeling of isolation, than the rest of their peers. These barriers can be very real in a modern society, where children often hunger to be understood or long to talk over their problems in a caring atmosphere with someone they can trust.

      So along comes LAP, with its volunteers, its empathy, its patience, its confidence building and its one-to-one dialogues. It remains one of the most innovative developments in education and provides a heart-warming experience for both adults and children.

      http://www.lap.asn.au/whatislap.htm

      Gillard should be more enthused about this programme than her devised NAPLAN which takes up the teachers precious time trying to get the children to remember to write the right answers never mind if they don’t understand it. There go and suck on a lemon!

    • Rosie says:

      12:32pm | 14/05/12

      The Govt should check out whether LAP is available throughout Australia. I know here in South Australia it is not available in all the schools. Because of the school zoning I sincerely hope it is not only available at the schools located in the high real estate suburbs. I also know it is up to the principal of the primary schools to engage in LAP and then it depends on the availability of volunteers.

      Thank you, Justin for the article, lets hope the politicians are reading Punch today instead of being bogged down in the stench that is engulfing our Parliament. If the Gillard Govt are too busy standing up for Thompson rot lets hope the Opposition will do something about the waste of time and money spent on this yearly NAPLAN thing!

    • Talon says:

      02:13pm | 14/05/12

      @ JT.  Not entirely.  Memory is only on small part of learning.  Reasoning is the major contributor to higher learning.  Only knowing something that is memorised or written by someone else will not give you the tools to learn effectively or independently.  The skills required for problem solving will not be learnt.

      Memorising the 1-12 times table will not teach you what 15 x 23 equals.  You really need to know the basic to learn how numbers and math work.  knowing the basics give you the skill to go beyond.

      If you were told and had read that Shakespeare was nothing more then a pompous, underling of a nobody.  That is what you would think of him.  However if you saw or read the plays you would believes something quit different.

      This is one of the main problems with the current curriculum in schools and universities.

    • Rosie says:

      02:28pm | 14/05/12

      Well Naplan teaches the kids nothing but how to memorize the answers never mind the understanding of why and how.

    • Talon says:

      03:13pm | 14/05/12

      @ Rosie.  No argument there.  NAPLAN is nothing more then a paper pushing smokescreen.  What needs to be done and is not, is for an overhaul of the education system.  The national curriculum and standards along with teaching methodology needs to be upgraded.

      How embarrassing is it to know that the youth you are confronted with, after leaving high school does not know how to read, write, spell or do basic math.  That is what I and many others have seen in increasing volume over the last decade.  It has become too obvious to ignore but the powers that be are.  Our government si ignoring it and pushing paper till the problem belongs to someone else.

    • morrgo says:

      03:24pm | 14/05/12

      @Rosie: Naplan cannot teach kids to memorize THE answers, as the questions of the day are not known beforehand.

      Naplan is supposed to test how well the kids learn a segment of the curriculum by asking questions from it.  Kids are certainly drilled in answering similar questions, but why is this bad?  Learning to take tests is a useful skill in itself.

    • Rosie says:

      04:25pm | 14/05/12

      morrgo

      Yes I understand and nothing wrong with what you are saying but what concerns me is that schools, teachers and children shouldn’t be put under any more pressure than what it has now. More emphasizes should be on giving the children the best education our society can offer the them.

      Have you looked at the tests? All very similar but worded differently. In some cases the children can’t even read the questions so will fill in the spaces without understanding anything.

      I agree with Talon; “How embarrassing is it to know that the youth you are confronted with, after leaving high school does not know how to read, write, spell or do basic math.” With the LAP this could be prevented. So Naplan should be replaced with LAP. Anything that will improve the children’s learning is good for them as long as it doesn’t put more pressure on them and the teaches. Why not have exams at the end of a teaching team and have the Govt gauge whatever they want from that instead of Naplan?

    • Fiona says:

      09:50am | 14/05/12

      I have seen the napkin study at home type books at the news agent, but have never even thought of buying them, I don’t see how extra study would benefit anyone, particularly the middle of the range achiever. It’s not like they’ll get extra funding for their school. I know the school my kids go to does some practice in preparation for it and any secondary school you send your kids to wants to see them, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s another day at school. That’s the message I give my kids, who are both due to sit one this year. Young kids don’t need to be stressed out over a test at age 8.

    • Ana says:

      10:19am | 14/05/12

      My daughter is 8 and will be sitting NAPLAN this week. The poor little thing is so stressed about it! The teachers are drilling the kids on practice tests, and I have to agree with the previous poster who said some of the wording is terrible!

    • Chris says:

      11:40am | 14/05/12

      Maybe the questions are terrible because the writers didn’t have the ALMIGHTY NAPLAN to assess them when they were younger and therefore give them the best start in life?

      Disclaimer - the above does not necessarily represent my view.

      Chris

    • Anna says:

      01:01pm | 14/05/12

      Ana please explain to your daughter that Naplan has nothing to do with her but for her teacher and her school. She is made to do the best she can for Govts to find out a few things about her school. Govts think they can’t find out these things unless the children do these Naplan tests. If it was of any importance to her she would be doing it every year. You don’t have to know the results unless you wish to do so.

      There is absolutely nothing to stress about! Good luck!

    • Chris says:

      11:11am | 14/05/12

      Absolutely.

      By far and away the biggest problem with such tests is that teachers end up “teaching to the exam” rather than teaching for the understanding and knowledge that forms the foundation.

      By doing so kids aren’t learning to think - they are learning to repeat.

      Similarly the labelling of a child as above or below average will probably impact them as they go on.  Children who are labelled dumb will not bother trying because, why bother I’m just a dumb kid?  Children labelled as smart will have background pressure on them to continue to achieve, irrespective of whether they are actually capable or not.

      Children should be encouraged to reach their potential and excel - trying to externally put a label on that potential is not the way to achieve that goal.

      Chris

    • John Stewart says:

      11:33am | 14/05/12

      The evidence and opinions mount.  As an educator I believe this is a very important debate.  I voice my concerns about other key issues in my blog - http://www.tudorhouse.nsw.edu.au/blog/is_naplan_improving_schooling
      Having witnessed high-stake testing overseas (Australia is lagging behind and picks up the pieces once tasted by others) I can state - NAPLAN as a high-stake test asserts pressure and calls into question our profession.  This isn’t new-age clap-trap.  It isn’t avoidance of results.  It is an insider’s knowledge of what schools are doing - teaching to the test, labelling as under—achieving learners at age 9, limiting our scope for creative lesson structures, and believing ‘recall’ is a higher order thinking skill.

    • Justin Coulson says:

      03:22pm | 14/05/12

      Terrific blog John. Thanks for sharing that.

      Also worth pointint out that parents can SEND KIDS TO SCHOOL WITH A LETTER requesting the child NOT sit the test. It is NOT compulsory.

    • Thetruthwouldn'thurt says:

      12:15pm | 14/05/12

      Naplan is fine. If the teacher’s are putting stress on the kids, that is wrong. If they are putting stress on the kids because stress is being put on them, that is wrong. If teachers are being assessed purely on the test results, then that is also wrong. The test itself is fine, perhaps the delivery ought to be questioned?

      My kids are old enough to be done with it all now. I never had a problem with them being stressed or having pressure put on them for the test. Perhaps they were in good schools with the correct priorities?

      I enjoyed seeing where they sat in comparison with others. (and it wasn’t always good news, but that then gave me an idea of what to work on)

      If you pick a school for your child based solely on results, you will not pick the right school for your child. I see Naplan as one piece of the whole puzzle. An interesting set of results to help make up a bigger picture. There are so many other factors that need to be looked at along with the results in order to get the whole picture.

    • stephen says:

      04:52pm | 14/05/12

      Instead of testing children, good Educators should be testing the curriculum and making recommendations for the best quality subjects and textbooks that are available.
      That sounds easy, I know, and I suspect that the kids are getting a makeover because the experienced amongst us cannot agree on what ‘good texts’ and a proper education is.

      That aside, I’d like to know why we have to compare our students to those from overseas.
      Do we compare our factory workers to those from, say, Denmark ?
      What about the price of red meat ?
      (I’ll bet it’s cheaper everywhere else except on board Air Force One.)
      Australian children are not the same as those from other parts of the world.
      Every country is different from every other, and to demand that the literacy levels should match or exceed school-children from nation’s ignores the fact that children are not yet in competition, and it will be a while yet before they go to Helsinki and get to parrot off Bruce Dawe’s latest Sonnet.

      Australian children learn to function in Australia, and they, if they are exposed to the best books, the best teachers and a general society that encourages excellence and risk-taking, then the rising standards of literacy and culture should rest with us adults ... where the responsibility has
      always belonged.
      Testing children for standards is wrong.
      The standards of a society rests with us.
      And to maintain that

    • Talon says:

      12:21am | 15/05/12

      It’s late at night and I feel like throwing spanners for thought.  If education in Australia prepared youths for employment in our country, why is it necessary to import skilled labour?

      If public schools were of high standard in education what is the need for private schools and why fund them?

    • Lorraine says:

      04:55pm | 14/05/12

      I heard someone say äs useless as a hip pocket on a singlet”. That’s Naplan testing.
      There are even weeks spent preparing for the test now. it would only be valid if it were held without notice in any class, at anytime.
      All it does at the moment is use up valuable teaching time that could be used to assist children who are having difficulty with concepts. Governments know nothing about education so why don’t they butt out and let the teachers do the job they are trained to do.

    • ImaWestie says:

      10:14pm | 14/05/12

      Any child who cannot read as well as the average child their age fully deserves to know that fact.
      If the NAPLAN tests are not reflective of what the curriculum is supposed to be teaching my child, please assist in developing a more rounded test that is also within the realms of feasibility to implement in an objective manner.

      The biggest failing with NAPLAN is, the test was promoted to measure the effectiveness of a SCHOOL, yet they issue INDIVIDUAL results not simply a schools ranking/bell curve.

 

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