Anxious kids not learning: the real effects of NAPLAN

What’s the real effect of NAPLAN testing? AAP Image/Paul Miller

Australian teachers are not convinced that NAPLAN improves the reading and maths skills of students.

Over the next week, NAPLAN results will be arriving at students’ homes around Australia. But new research released today shows some worrying effects from NAPLAN testing.

Seven out of 10 teachers did not see that NAPLAN was improving literacy and numeracy. They also felt that NAPLAN results could not adequately reflect the learning that occurred in their classrooms.

Given this new research, it is timely to consider the value of NAPLAN as a way of improving school performance.


Already, the national results are being scrutinised, with various states and organisations using them to justify certain narratives about their school systems. But according to Minister for Education Peter Garrett, Australia’s overall school performance in NAPLAN has remained steady since 2008.

But why is it, given one of the aims of NAPLAN was to improve literacy and numeracy and with copious amounts of time and money spent on testing, we have not seen results improve overall since 2008?

The 2012 results show that an improvement in one area is often accompanied by a decrease in another area. For example since 2011 nationally, Year 3 reading has slightly improved, while spelling has dipped slightly. Year 5 reading has improved, but writing has gone backwards. Even between 2012 and 2011, state by state results have remained steady.

NAPLAN is an example of what the American Education Research Association would see as a high-stakes test. High-stakes tests can have negative consequences at the classroom level, despite their worthy ambitions to improve equity and outcomes.

They distort curriculum and instruction, when “test scores per se, rather than learning, become the overriding goal of classroom instruction.”

In other words, the ways that NAPLAN data are being used at the classroom level is incredibly important, and often forgotten when we look at population level data on this scale. Arguably NAPLAN fosters a performance culture rather than a learning culture.

The effects of NAPLAN

My research in Western Australia and South Australia presents a possible explanation as to why high-stakes tests do not generally improve outcomes. This research consisted of a large, mixed-methods survey of teachers in WA and SA with 961 teacher responses. Teachers were asked their perceptions of the impact of NAPLAN on learning in their classrooms, their curriculum and pedagogic choices, their professional relationships and their levels of stress.

This research shows NAPLAN has lead to a narrowing of the curriculum focus, a “teach to the test mentality” and a return to teacher-centred pedagogies that may lower student engagement with learning. Teachers reported that test preparation and the increased emphasis on competition meant that it was harder to cater for students with the greatest need.

Teachers also perceive that NAPLAN increases the stress and anxiety of students, teachers, parents and school administrators. This would work against an increased emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy because stress makes learning more difficult.

The observer effect

So, we seem stuck in a loop. Increased accountability and transparency is held to be a mechanism for improving literacy and numeracy. It provides parents, schools and communities with information that allows them to follow the progress of their children, identifies areas for improvement and incentives for schools to act on the data.

However, this increased accountability is resulting in a competitive mentality that sees schools and teachers focus on the test rather than on the needs of their students. Another way of explaining this is to say that performance is becoming more important than learning.

Often there are systemic reasons for this, teachers are told that these results matter, jobs are on the line, schools are competing for enrolments based on performance on these public measures. States have funding withheld by the Federal Government if they don’t meet performance standards.

What is the future of NAPLAN?

After 5 years of testing, with no statistical improvement in NAPLAN results from 2008, and no clear upward trajectory from 2011, we need to consider the role that NAPLAN has to play in our national agenda to improve literacy and numeracy. As I see it, there are four possible policy futures for NAPLAN.

The first of these is that nothing changes. This is perhaps the most likely scenario, as both the federal government and the opposition seem committed to retaining NAPLAN in its current form.

The second is that the continued lack of improvement will result in an increased emphasis on testing. Certainly this has been the experience in some states in America, where high-stakes testing has become the most common form of assessment sat multiple times in the year. A move to link testing results to teacher pay is a worrying trend in that direction.

The third is that Australia follows the trend of some other countries such as Finland and stops using high-stakes literacy and numeracy tests like NAPLAN.

The fourth is that we act to make NAPLAN operate less as a high-stakes testing regime and more as a data collection device whose main focus is to improve learning, not performance. To do this we would have to pay as much attention to how the information is used, as the actual results. Despite the pattern of negative survey responses from teachers about NAPLAN, there were some schools that seemed to have used NAPLAN data to focus on learning, not performance. How these schools manage this could be a way forward. After all, if we use the data to improve learning, literacy and numeracy standards will also improve.

Without a re-evaluation I fear we will be having the same conversation in 2013, that despite the time and money invested, we have not significantly improved literacy and numeracy. And that should not be acceptable.