There has been much controversy this week over a study released by the Whitlam Institute claiming that NAPLAN testing is being treated as a high-stakes program that is causing unnecessary stress among students and distorting the school curriculum across Australia.
But NAPLAN is not high stakes nor is testing students’ competence in basic skills new in Australia. It’s time to set the record straight about the purpose and role of NAPLAN in Australian schools.
NAPLAN tests students over a few hours spread out over a few days, four times from year 3 to year 9. The tests are not onerous and not high-stakes.
Their primary purpose is to give parents information on how well their children are developing fundamental skills in literacy and numeracy from a broader perspective than individual teachers and schools have.
The test results can reassure parents or alert them to problems, and provide a basis on which parents can have an informed discussion with teachers.
New South Wales introduced basic skills tests in 1989, with all other states and territories following suit. During the Howard years, David Kemp, Federal Minister for Education, made the assessment of all students and reporting to their parents a condition for some federal funds.
Later, the Council of Education Ministers directed that the results of the separate state and territory assessments be expressed on a common scale. In early 2007, with Julie Bishop as the federal minister, the Council agreed to use common assessments.
Off the back of these developments, the first NAPLAN tests were created in 2007 and used in 2008.
But prior to NAPLAN, there had been high-stakes, state-wide examinations at the end of primary school and in middle and at the end of secondary school. All of them controlled access to the next level of education but were abolished when they lost that function.
The only high-stakes assessments in Australia now are end-of-year 12 assessments, and the voluntary entry tests for selective schools and scholarship tests for non- government schools.
Teacher organisations resisted each new development in literacy and numeracy testing but, after two decades, the tests had become well-established and non-controversial.
The new round of opposition from teachers comes because the results are now publicly reported. NAPLAN provides information not only on students but also on schools.
If NAPLAN is being made high-stakes for students, with some reported to be anxious and even ill when the tests approach, this is due to teachers transferring stress to their students.
The results for all schools are published on the MySchool website. While the data have been irresponsibly used by some parts of the media to publish raw league tables that take no account of a school’s context, MySchool does not do that.
The most important thing it does is to compare each school with other schools with students from a similar level of socio-educational advantage or disadvantage.
The site has shown some schools with relatively disadvantaged students to be doing well and very much better than other schools with similar students. These schools show that the others cannot hide behind a claim that they could not do better because of the kinds of students they have.
We cannot let students’ socio-educational backgrounds determine or limit their opportunities. Showing what the best can do can lift the sights for all.
The MySchool site has also revealed some schools with advantaged students to be “coasting”, doing quite well in comparison with state and national averages but much less so than other schools with similarly advantaged students. They and their parents may well have been comfortable without this evidence but they deserve to know and be challenged by it.
Lessons to be learned
For their Whitlam Institute publication, Melbourne University researchers Nicky Dulfer, John Polesel and Susan Rice asked teachers and principals what they are doing in this new environment.
Many of them said they are now giving students excessive test practice, teaching to the test and narrowing their students’ experiences in various ways.
That is what teachers in 1989 in NSW said that they, or at least other teachers, would do once the Basic Skills Testing Program was in place. They did not.
If teachers are doing that now, their students are being poorly served. Students need enough practice with tests to ensure they are familiar with the form of testing that NAPLAN will provide. Beyond that, test practice is a waste of time.
Parents should challenge their schools if they are wasting their children’s time in this way.
The best way for schools to develop their students’ literacy and numeracy skills is to give them a rich curriculum with reading and writing and the use of mathematics in a wide variety of learning areas. This will build the skills that students need for NAPLAN tests and, much more importantly, as the basis for further learning.