Can we talk about NAPLAN?

I have avoided blogging about NAPLAN* until now, because I know it's a deeply divisive topic, and is one that can elicit some particularly impassioned responses from teachers, academics, and parents. I just did a quick search on the hashtag #NAPLAN on Twitter and as you can see, the result confirms that there's range of views on this important issue:


As with all divisive topics on which well-motivated people disagree, there's a number of issues that need to be fleshed out. To be clear, I am in favour of national testing, but that doesn't mean that I am blind to the need for some improvements.

I don't intend here to dissect individual stakeholder arguments one-by-one, but in general, here's some of what I've read and heard in recent days, and some thoughts in response:

  1. NAPLAN isn't assessing knowledge and skills that are relevant in modern education (or some variant of this, along the lines of the specific tasks not being appropriate).

    Much is written and discussed these days of the importance of modern education preparing students for an uncertain future in a complex world. The future has always been uncertain, but I see no indications that the importance of literacy and numeracy will diminish, particularly as these apply to gaining access to higher education and skilled employment. Many teachers and teacher educators are dismissive of data from PIRLS testing, and Australian Bureau of Statistics data on literacy levels in this country, but for me, the compelling cry comes from the Industry Skills Council of Australia 2011 report "No More Excuses" which points out that literally millions of Australians lack the literacy, numeracy and language skills to cope with the demands of the workplace. What was that again about preparing students for the demands of a complex world?
  2. Taking part in NAPLAN testing is stressful for students, especially for those who are struggling academically or facing particular psychosocial adversities in their lives. We should protect such children from this stress.

    I find this argument particularly fuzzy and just a bit disingenuous. Yes, there will be some children who experience anxiety about any kind of testing - including that which teachers do outside of the NAPLAN process. Anxiety is not necessarily harmful, in fact in the right "dose" it can be beneficial to performance, and can equip us to better confront future challenges. It is also a normal human emotion and one that we all need to learn to manage, so we can cope with a range of everyday uncertainties and stresses. How will children and adolescents learn to habituate to the stress of testing if they are sheltered from it? Controlled exposure, under the calm lead of a skilled teacher should significantly address such concerns. Removing everyday stress from children does not teach them how to deal with stress.  Life is testing and testing should not be a taboo word. Ramping up talk of "high-stakes" testing, however, is irresponsible and not child-friendly.
  3. Teachers already assess their students and know "who's who" with respect to achievement and needs.

    So the argument here seems to be that data is OK when teachers collect it, but data is on the nose when it is collected by government authorities. Of course we would expect teachers to know who is achieving, who is excelling, and who is struggling, based on their observations and interactions with students every day. However we could also expect that the notional "bar" shifts as a function of the community and school in which a teacher is working. Given the inescapable reality of socio-economic status (SES) and teacher practice variations between schools, isn't it helpful for teachers to know how students in similar and different settings are going? Aren't teachers just a bit curious about what is happening in other schools and pondering why?
  4. Other professions don't have to undergo this kind of "government scrutiny" of their work outputs.

    Every profession is different, and if what you do is important (and you're tax-payer funded), you should assume that someone will want to look over your shoulder at some point and see how well you're going. Maybe your performance could be used to assist others who are not achieving as well as you are. Maybe there's aspects of your performance that could be tweaked. Is that such a terrible thing? Some schools are obviously "punching above their weight" with respect to NAPLAN scores, e.g., as reported here. If I was a primary school teacher, I'd be very keen to hear about what they've been up to at Harrisfield PS in recent years.  
  5. The data arrives too late in the academic year for it to be of real use to teachers and schools in addressing individual student needs.

    I agree with this criticism. Let's speed up the cycle and get data back to teachers and schools much earlier in the year. In return though, teachers and schools should stop discouraging so-called "weaker" students from participating in NAPLAN testing.
  6. Variations in performance reflect inequities in how schools are funded.

    This seems to be much more an ideological position rather than one that can be argued from any kind of evidence-base, particularly as some schools buck the demographic trends, as a result of specific pedagogical approaches they adopt. Sure, we can do a lot more to improve equity and fairness with respect to school funding, but when NAPLAN results continue to be highly variable, what will the nay-sayers resort to as an argument then?
  7. The existence of NAPLAN narrows teachers' focus and distorts curriculum delivery.

    I think the best answer to this came from a young Grade 3 teacher I spoke with recently. She said her principal asked her earlier in the year what she was doing to prepare her students for NAPLAN testing. Her reply? "Teaching them well".

We do need to keep talking about NAPLAN, but in ways that authentically put the educational interests of children ahead of professional vested interests. We would expect nothing less from colleagues in medicine, engineering and aviation, whose work also involves enormous trust on the part of the community. As I've said many times on this blog, the work of teachers is no less important than that of any of those other professions, and as such, we expect engagement with data from a range of sources. NAPLAN is but one of those.


(C) Pamela Snow 2015







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