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NAPLAN only measures a fraction of literacy learning

Students across Australia in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are currently sitting for the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests. These tests are supposedly designed to identify whether…

NAPLAN tests are only measuring a very small part of literacy and learning. Writing image from www.shutterstock.com

Students across Australia in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are currently sitting for the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests. These tests are supposedly designed to identify whether students have the “literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for their learning, and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community.”

However, there are a number of serious concerns about NAPLAN, including causing health problems such as stress, anxiety, as well as vomiting and sleeplessness. NAPLAN has also been criticised for encouraging teaching to the test, the promotion of supplements, narrowing the curriculum and manipulation and cheating by schools.

Given these growing concerns about the impacts of NAPLAN, it is important to consider just what this expensive standardised literacy testing program actually measures.

Testing the ability to do tests

Just as I.Q. tests do little more than test someone’s ability to do an I.Q. test, NAPLAN primarily measures students’ capacity to effectively sit NAPLAN tests.

Students as young as seven are made to sit in a room up to twice a day over three days, 40 minutes at a time and use pencil and paper to complete tests with about 40 questions on them. These tests are broken into reading, writing, language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and numeracy.

The nature of the tests as one-size-fits-all means that the diverse social and cultural differences of students are ignored, while different learning styles and ways of knowing and understanding are stymied. The tests have also been criticised of having an Anglo-Australian bias that privileges white, middle class world views.

It seems nonsensical that pencil and paper tests conducted in a couple of hours over three days can even begin to measure the complexities of literacy learning and knowledge of our young people. Yet, each May since 2008, this is exactly what the Australian government has attempted to do.

Further, despite being touted as a useful diagnostic tool for schools and teachers, there are limited benefits to improving literacy outcomes for students when the test results are released in October, five months after students have sat them. Anyone who has ever raised or taught young children will know that five months is a lifetime in the learning development of children.

More than reading and writing

The version of literacy valued by pencil and paper tests is one that fits with a skills-based traditional approach to learning, which has limited relevance in the lives of young people today. Reading, spelling, grammar, punctuation and writing are necessary and important skills, but they fall well short of the range of skills and knowledge needed for young people to thrive as literate citizens in today’s information and media rich environment.

A large amount of research has been done into new literacies over the past couple of decades. These new literacies make use of new communication technologies, such as the internet, portable computing and mobile phones, along with visual and critical literacy, gaming, art, film, drama and music.

There is enormous potential in these new literacies for young people to engage in meaning making that is critical and creative. Continuing to privilege pencil and paper testing of reading and writing makes little sense when the lives of young people involve much more complex ways of communicating and accessing information through a wide variety of media.

Music as literacy?

One growing area of interest is in the intersection of music and literacy. Music has long been accepted as an important feature in the lives of young people, with popular music and youth culture intertwined since Bill Hayley and the Comets released “Rock Around the Clock”. Less known are the deep connections of music and language, and the capacity for music to act as a vehicle for literacy learning.

There are obvious links that can be made between song lyrics and language, but less obvious are the other links to learning, where music develops auditory and metacognitive processes through singing, rhyme, rhythm and percussion. A simple example of this is through mnemonics such as the alphabet song, where pitch and rhythm work together to trigger linguistic cues.

Music links to reading in ways that we are only beginning to understand. Motivation, cueing and comprehension are all aided through music. In other words, if we want to improve our students’ reading and writing skills, we should get them singing more.

This is the kind of innovative teaching that should be done in schools to build up literacy skills in students. But with tests like NAPLAN increasingly dominating the school day and encouraging teachers to teach to the test, will there be any room left? Perhaps if NAPLAN could measure singing then things would be very different.

Join the conversation

28 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    The diversity of views in different articles on NAPLAN is quite significant, an article just yesterday supporting how much the NAPLAN results can be used and certainly they will obviously show how results do vary.
    Past that it would be necessary to be assessing variations against many factors to ascertain what action would be thought best to attempt upgrading performances where they are lower.

    At the same time, there is a great danger of going more complex than necessary with testing when what…

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  2. David Geelan

    logged in via Facebook

    There are a number of different issues that often get conflated around NAPLAN. In this article Stew is focusing specifically on one of those issues - do the NAPLAN literacy tests actually measure literacy? Do they have the 'face validity' of actually measuring what they claim to measure? His answer is that they do not: they measure some small and easy-to-test subset of literacy, but then make claims about the 'literacy' of students as though that subset were the whole concept. It's an important issue, and I'll be interested to see whether any of the commentators manage to bring evidence or arguments that directly challenge that perspective.

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    1. David Geelan

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Geelan

      There are other issues related to how the NAPLAN results are *used*. They tend not to be useful for their claimed purpose - diagnostic information for teachers about how individual students are learning - because, as Stew notes, the results are not available for about 5 months after the tests are done, and only a month or so before the end of the school year. They fail the test of actually serving the purpose for which it is claimed they are done.

      They tend to be used, instead, to judge schools…

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    2. Bron Shimmin-Clarke

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to David Geelan

      @David Geelan - I think people misunderstand the 'claimed purpose' of NAPLAN. It was never intended to measure individual student achievement but rather the group, school, or state. As a broad indication of whether things are working, it is OK.

      However, it is not OK when schools ask to see NAPLAN results for individual students as part of enrolment / acceptance. The problem is that NAPLAN is being used for the wrong purpose - measuring individual students!

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    3. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Bron Shimmin-Clarke

      Misuse of NAPLAN results would seem to be another case of public educators not doing as they are bloody well told by their education ministry bosses!

      It is time elements within the public education sector quit with their attempts to dictate education policy to the education department and the general public

      There is nothing wrong with everyone, including public educators, having a say in education policy.

      But it seems these days that elements within the public education system wish to do far more than simply have a respectful say!

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    4. fabian sweeney

      retired agricultural scientist

      In reply to Bron Shimmin-Clarke

      Bron you are spot on. ACARA explains again and again thus:

      "NAPLAN is not a test of content. Instead, it tests skills in literacy and numeracy that are developed over time through the school curriculum."

      And that is available in this "supposedly" Review which also "Only measures a fraction" of the education improvement problem, but misleadingly. I expect that highlighted "supposedly" reference may have been inserted by a wise TC editor. Is this TC article just full of gossip and a measure of the Authors Institutional views or his own dislike of measuring a problem to discover the probabilities of how to help solve it first.

      If so go back and give us your 'n' measured students and analysis from that; then please give us the facts not gossip.

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  3. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    I recently heard a teacher......wannabe education minister......complaining that NAPLAN literacy testing doesn't quantify poetry.

    Well that just indicates to me that the priorities of some educators are fundamentally flawed!

    Kids can appreciate little, least of all poetry, if they lack the ability to simply read!

    We need to get back to basics of education and put these self serving and self righteous educators back in their proper place.

    If they don't agree with democratically agreed government education policy then bugger off and get a job some where else!

    Poetry appreciation is an optional extra in literacy. Basic reading, spelling and comprehension etc is a life requirement.

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    1. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      If education ministers get education policy wrong then they are accountable at the next federal election.

      What accountability applies to educators like the above? Do they lose their job in the public school system if their push to teach kids poetry fails to teach them basic reading and comprehension when they leave after year 12?

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    2. Yvonne Salton

      Associate Lecturer, Faculty of Education at University of Southern Queensland

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      Your comments fascinate me. As one of those educators I appreciate the purpose and place that reading, spelling and comprehension have in preparing students for life, but I also know that these are not listed as the employability skills that are required in the workplace. See the following checklist:
      http://www.youthcentral.vic.gov.au/Jobs+%26+Careers/Planning+your+career/Employability+skills/

      Interestingly none of these are essential elements in the accountability for schools. So what is…

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    3. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Yvonne Salton

      Because it is pretty clear to me that reading and comprehension are implicitly required for all jobs and all vocations.

      I guess most employers simply assume that educators are adequately fulfilling the task that they are employed to perform.

      But it appears that in some instances this is not the case and if NAPLAN testing can shed light on why this is the case then who the hell are educators to tell the government that they wont cooperate with the scheme.

      At least try it! If it is found that it isn't adequate over a period of time then it can be adjusted or replaced with a better system.

      But let us not persist with the status quo when apparently it is failing kids, and the country in general, in some or many cases.

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    4. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      You know the saying Yvonne.......'too many chefs spoil the broth'.

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    5. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      In short this country needs a leader with a vision who is prepared to lead rather than act as a chair person and defer all government policy decisions to, 'others' including teacher unions etc.

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    6. Michael Hay

      retired

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      Stewart: you and a slew of other academics and teachers are getting into a froth of bubbles about a simple test which assesses how good a child is at sitting and exam on a certain day and in regard to a certain subject. If you and your cohorts could divorce yourselves from trying to read into these tests a whole raft of irrelevant results - including using them as a basis to 'rate' a school -, the tests could be seen as part of the education process of teaching children to make decisions, on their own, in a place where decisions need to be made. Just as they will need to be able to do during the rest of their lives.
      You could perhaps leave the mountain-building to some other more important aspect of education and keep this subject in its own small molehill where it well and truly belongs!

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    7. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Michael Hay

      Hoo....bloody....rar!

      Like I said, there are too many damn wannabe chiefs in the various teachers' unions and education department etc and it is about time that some one put them back in their proper place!

      It is their place to follow the directives of the government and give these sorts of initiatives a try.

      If it they overwhelming don't work, in the view of a majority of the teaching sector, THEN the government should listen to criticisms and tweak or replace the system.

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    8. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Yvonne Salton

      Yvonne, It is concerning that a QLD teacher needs to link to a Victorian government website to educate us all on all " As one of those educators I appreciate the purpose and place that reading, spelling and comprehension have in preparing students for life, but I also know that these are not listed as the employability skills that are required in the workplace." Nevertheless, the very site you linked to says just the opposite.
      If you follow the very first link http://www.innovation.gov.au/Skills/LiteracyAndNumeracy/AustralianCoreSkillsFramework/Pages/EmployabilitySkills.aspx
      This post highlights once again that we need to be testing the teachers before they are let loose on our kids.

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  4. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Apart from music, which in this article is presented primarily as a vehicle for acquiring aspects of language and literacy, nearly all of the "new literacies" are dependent on the "small subset" tested by NAPLAN. While arguments can be made that visual arts, film and television employ non-verbal/orthographic means of communication, language and writing are required, at least in part, to demonstrate that one has in fact understood the communication intended, serendipitous or otherwise. Further, orthography, at the small subset level tested by NAPLAN is now a culturally basic symbolic system and skill in Western societies among others. While we might rail against such cultural hegemony, this small subset of literacy is a fact of life, knowledge and awareness of which is one fundamental aspect of education in this society, whether we like it or not.

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  5. Greg Boyles

    Lanscaper and former medical scientist

    The same sort of interference is currently going on with 'parenting' and discipline.

    While the drive to stamp out blatant child abuse is absolutely necessary, some advocates are now crossing the line into the dictating the terms of the relationships between parents and the children.

    That is just not on and has to be stopped.

    In a similar way public educators are crossing or have crossed the line between reasonable comment and criticism of education policy to attempts to dictate education policy to governments.

    Perhaps we do indeed an Abbott style government that is prepared to 'squash' elements of the teachers' unions etc back into their appropriate place in society!

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  6. Jack Adams

    Student

    I am a year 9 student who sat the NAPLAN test today.
    Firstly, I would like to say that the test was fairly easy.

    Students who are anxious and 'vomiting' couldn't have listened during class. Teachers who disagree with the NAPLAN test probably haven't been doing their job properly, because if they were, all students would pass.

    The NAPLAN test is supposed to test the knowledge you have accumulated throughout the years, not what you can learn in a few days before the test.

    My point of view is if students can't pass the NAPLAN test, they haven't been taught properly, because it should be easy for them.

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    1. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Jack Adams

      Good on you matey.

      "Teachers who disagree with the NAPLAN test probably haven't been doing their job properly"

      Yes I wonder about this. It is often the case that anyone who makes loud noises about this sort of testing, in any industry, is intent on avoiding scrutiny directed towards themselves!

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    2. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      How does a student "pass" NAPLAN?

      If everyone passed the test with flying colours, then it's not doing its job properly. If it's too easy for kids then it's a waste of time for them - teachers CAN'T measure those kids' ability. If the results for all students are between 25% and 75% then the test (ANY test) is a much better assessment tool for teachers who can then target their teaching more accurately at those students ...

      ... but then, if those WERE the results for NAPLAN, pundits like Greg here and all his other cheerleading mates would be booing the teachers.

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    3. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to John Perry

      As has been stated ad norseum the NAPLAN test is NOT meant to rank students ability but to identify areas of, to put it bluntly, failure on the part of the education system where students basically can't read or write or add etc.

      Perhaps such failures may be due to sub par teachers or may be, as the prime minister has stated, it is simply due to inadequate resources.

      Just stop you god damned belly aching John Perry and do as you are damn well told....or get another job where you do not have to administer NAPLAN!

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    4. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      "failure on the part of the education system"

      Wrong. It's to identify areas of need of the individual student. The problem is that the test is badly designed and doesn't even give the feedback it purports to be for until FIVE MONTHS after the test itself. League tables are not part of its reason for being - in fact, the federal government (who are responsible for the test) and ACARA (who are the testing body) both say that they are opposed to league tables. It is the newspapers who publish them that are doing the sensationalising and spreading the misinformation.

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    5. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to John Perry

      Already acknowledged exactly that John, that it is partly to identify resource shortfalls at public schools.

      But if I was education minister I would also be using it as a tool to help identify any consistent individual teacher or school failures and, through public scrutiny and assuming they have previously been given the resources necessary, put pressure on them to lift their game!

      Scrutiny is good for everyone John, including you public teachers!

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    6. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to John Perry

      It is a bloody exam. I had many of them through my high school and university days and managed to pass many of them.

      With all this 'noise' you are making about NAPLAN John, it sounds to me rather like you fear you are a sub-par teacher at a sub-par school and desperate to avoid any personal scrutiny lest you loose your job!

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    7. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      I am by no means am suggesting that you or your school are sub-par - I don't know you, I don't know your school and I don't know the demographic your school has to deal with.

      But it never the less seems to me that you fear you are sub-par John!

      I can't imagine any other reason why you would so resistant to this NAPLAN initiative and to the general public being able to scrutinize your school's results!

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    8. John Perry

      Teacher

      In reply to Greg Boyles

      Have you ever looked at a NAPLAN test? I bet you haven't. It looks nothing like the exams you had at high school and university that you had, in your words, "ad norseum" (what is "ad norseum" anyway? When you've had enough of all the bloody Vikings? Or did you mean "ad nauseum"?).

      You are also creating a very silly straw man by constantly speculating that I am worried about my job and feel guilty that I am below par. If anything, I am well above par and set high expectations ... and that is probably why I see NAPLAN for what it is and its shortcomings that force teachers to "teach to the test" rather than teach kids what will actually be useful for them.

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    9. Greg Boyles

      Lanscaper and former medical scientist

      In reply to John Perry

      Forgive me for 'ad norseum'. It aint a phrase I use every day and I did not bother to check the spelling before banging it out. And it is beside the point for the purposes of this discussion!

      1) As far as I understand it, NAPLAN exams are not designed for the same purpose as regular exams, so it would not be surprising to me if they were a little different.

      2) My primary school daughter brought home a maths NAPLAN test if I remember correctly and the questions looked perfectly reasonable, logical…

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