Nasty NAPLAN results: what should parents do next?

Bad NAPLAN results can lead parents to seek help, but which learning programs can they trust? Test image from www.shutterstock.com

The latest NAPLAN results have arrived, and soon enough thousands of Australian parents will tear open the envelope containing their child’s NAPLAN results.

They will be faced with a series of graphs that look a bit like mercury thermometers, with the health of their child in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy represented by hovering black dots.

According to the results around 92% of Australian students are at or above national minimum standards. Their parents will be pleased to see their child’s dots sitting at the top of the thermometers, confirming that they are performing well. They can then relax and bask in the minutae of their son or daughter’s accomplishments.

But what about those parents that get a shock? What about those that see dots indicating that their child is performing below expectations for their year level in reading, and maybe even below the national minimum standard? What will these parents do?

Searching for answers

Most will probably get in touch with their child’s school. They will make an appointment with the classroom or learning support teacher. But many will also do some investigating of their own.

They might search the internet for: “How can I treat my child’s reading problem?” or “Is there a cure for reading difficulties?” And when they do, they will be bombarded with information and an enormous number of different reading treatment programs. All, of course, claim to be effective, at least for some children.

Many of the programs will explain how they are effective by using language that is heavy in scientific and technical terminology. Some may point to the “principles of neuroplasticity” that need to be understood in order to develop the “physical mechanism of learning”. While others claim to use computer science to “synchronise information and deliver it directly where it is needed”

One program called the Irlen Method states that it “corrects reading problems that are a result of a processing problem called Irlen Syndrome… This type of reading problem is result of the brain’s inability to accurately understand and process visual information.”

Another called the DORE program states it “has found the key to improving cerebellum efficiency is through our unique exercise programme… designed to kick-start the cerebellum and train the brain to speed up and automate the information flow.”

Evidence base

Some of the treatment programs will be supported by solid scientific evidence, with their efficacy established by controlled clinical trials. However, given the cost and difficulty involved in carrying out such trials, these treatments will be in the minority.

Others will not necessarily have been subject to a controlled treatment study, but their methods will be based on sound science. They may be quite similar to other treatments that have been subject to controlled trials and, as such, there might be some cause for confidence in their methods.

But others will have no scientific credibility at all.

The problem is: how can parents, or indeed teachers tell the difference between programs that are credible or effective, and those that aren’t?

Even well-educated people will find this extremely difficult to assess. I find it difficult and I have been working in the field for many years! Aside from the technical language, many of the sites provide lists of scientific articles to support the claims they make for efficacy. But only expert researchers are likely to have the background to assess whether these articles do in fact provide such support.

The average parent or teacher is left in a confused, frustrated muddle. I know because we receive calls from people like this to our research centre every week.

Reading regulation

What is needed, in my view, is some form of regulation. In some ways, the issues here are similar to those relating to complementary medicines such homoeopathic and aromatherapy products. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates these kinds of products via the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).

Complementary medicines may be either listed or registered with the ARTG, depending on the ingredients they contain and the claims that are made for them. Registered medicines pose potentially higher risk (for example containing ingredients known to be harmful to humans in certain circumstances) and are individually evaluated by the TGA. Listed medicines are of low risk.

But for both registered and listed medicines, it is a requirement that sponsors hold information to substantiate all of their product’s claims.

Regulation of reading treatment programs, and indeed of programs for other conditions such as autism and Attention Deficit Disorder, could work in a similar way. As most reading treatments, like complementary medicines, would be considered “low risk”, the regulation might be in the form of a voluntary listing process.

What’s needed

Developers of treatment programs could, if they chose, submit their programs to be included on a publicly-available register. This would involve providing details of the program and how it is administered, as well as any relevant scientific evidence or controlled trials.

The evidence would be evaluated by a panel of experts in the field. The Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing has already set up eight Advisory Committees whose job is to advise the TGA. It would be relatively straightforward to set up an extra committee to advise on treatments for cognitive disabilities.

There could also be levels of listing to reflect different levels of confidence in the efficacy of a program. An A-Listed program would have been found effective in a controlled trial. A B-Listed program might not, itself, have been subject to a controlled trial, but it might be deemed similar enough in its methods to one that has been to be considered likely to be effective by the committee. Finally, a C-Listed program might be based on sound science, leading the committee to affirm that it has the potential to be effective.

Public guidance

If a parent or teacher looked up a program and found that it was not listed, they could conclude that either the developers of that program had chosen not to submit it for evaluation, or that they had submitted it but it had not been approved for listing as either A, B or C.

In time, I would hope that a register like this would promote the success of effective programs and hasten the decline of ineffective ones. It might encourage developers of such programs to be proactive in having their treatments externally evaluated.

But, most importantly, the next time a parent had a nasty NAPLAN moment, they would know where to turn.

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