Don’t boycott NAPLAN! Turning our back skews good data

The NAPLAN tests are about getting the best results for students. Flickr/Elizabeth Albert

A small but vocal group is calling on parents to withdraw their children from the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.

But if this call is successful and enough children are pulled, parents will not obtain the information that the tests provide about their children’s development in literacy and numeracy. Those calling for the bans argue the tests will tell parents nothing their children’s teachers cannot already tell them.

Teachers do know about the relative standing of the students in their class and know which ones, in that comparison, are struggling and which ones are excelling.

But what the teachers do not typically know is how their students’ developments fit in a broader context. Their students may be doing as well as they expect but their expectations may be inappropriate.

Origins of NAPLAN

State-wide literacy and numeracy tests were introduced, first in New South Wales in 1990, to give teachers and parents a broader perspective on what students are achieving. Soon the other states and territories followed.

The ministers for education collectively later decided it would be better to have an even broader view. They decided to adopt common assessments across the country.

The resulting NAPLAN began in 2008. The state and territory assessments had been well accepted, and so was NAPLAN when it was introduced.

But then vocal critics emerged. This criticism is dressed up as concern for students but it is really concern for teachers and schools.

NAPLAN critics argue that there is a new culture of assessment imposing stress on student. But from a student’s perspective, there is actually very little external assessment.

State-wide examinations that used to serve a selection function at the end of primary school are long gone. Those at the end of year 10 have stopped everywhere as well, with the last NSW School Certificate examinations conducted in 2011. NAPLAN and the state and territory tests of literacy and numeracy that preceded it involve students undergoing a few hours of assessment in four of their first 10 years of school.

Scared of scrutiny

The current opposition to NAPLAN is really opposition to the public reporting of NAPLAN results for schools on the My School website and the level of scrutiny to which it exposes schools and teachers.

The My School website offers fair comparisons, not simplistic league tables. The socio-educational advantage of every school’s students is determined on the basis of the parents’ education and occupation. Comparisons among schools are restricted to schools with similar students.

These “fair” comparisons, nevertheless, reveal marked differences among schools. The poorly performing ones cannot then claim that their results are the inevitable consequence of the backgrounds of their students since there are others with similar students doing much better.

I use my old primary school as an example, since its data are public on the website. Indooroopilly State School in Brisbane can readily be found on MySchool.

Indooroopilly’s index of socio-educational advantage is almost two standard deviations above the national average of 1000. Its NAPLAN results show it to be performing significantly and substantially above the national average in every year from 2008 to 2011. Without MySchool the parents and teachers would not have known that Indooroopilly was not comparing well with similar schools. Knowing that, Indooroopilly has lifted its performance and closed the gap. But there are some schools in its comparison group that are well ahead, that Indooroopilly could well learn from.

Without NAPLAN, parents, students and teachers would languish within the narrow perspective provided by local results. There would be no drive for low-performing schools to raise their performance. They could rest comfortable with a claim that more could not be achieved with students such as theirs.

NAPLAN puts such claims to the test.

Cooking the books

One growing worry is the way in which some newspapers are now taking NAPLAN results from My School and comparing schools without taking account of context.

The league tables the media produces with NAPLAN data are quite unfair. They give a distorted picture, inviting an assumption that the differences are all due to the schools, not accounting for background and home effects.

There is a risk that newspapers will undermine the legitimate use of My School and of NAPLAN as a measure of how strong a foundation in literacy and numeracy schools are helping students to build.

But My School and NAPLAN testing are still worthy endeavours – giving better information to parents and schools alike. Criticisms of both don’t take into account what the data offer and what would be lost if NAPLAN were to be undercut by a successful campaign by teachers to have parents withdraw their children from the tests.