The School House

The School House

What exactly is NAPLAN and how do I prepare my kids for it?

Dean Lewins/AAP

The national testing season begins on Tuesday May 12th as children in Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 around the country sit the writing, spelling and grammar tests of the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). Reading and numeracy will follow on Wednesday and Thursday.

So, what can you do to improve your child’s performance in NAPLAN between now and then?

Nothing.

It is not a test you can “prepare” for. And making it a big deal won’t improve students’ performances, although it may increase their anxiety and reduce their performance.

What is in the test?

NAPLAN is given a lot of media and teaching time each year, and is the core of the My School website. Many important decisions are made by teachers and parents on the basis of the results. Yet, very few know what is in the tests, or what they seek to assess.

NAPLAN is not connected to the Australian curriculum, so it is not an assessment of the content students learn each day at school. NAPLAN’s reference document is the “Statements of Learning”.

It is a general assessment of literacy and numeracy proficiency, providing a snapshot of how kids around the country answer a particular set of maths and English test questions one day in May. How your children perform will be the result of all their years at school, not what they did in the weeks leading up to the test.

In the writing test students are given a writing prompt and 40 minutes to produce either a persuasive or narrative piece of writing. The time limit of 40 minutes is nonsense (since when has speed been a mark of good writing?), but the marking criteria for the writing are sensible.

Writing is marked for its appeal to audience and its overall structure; the ideas within the writing and the logical connection of those ideas; the use of literary tools to build characters or persuade the reader; sentence structure; depth and breadth of vocabulary; paragraphing, punctuation and spelling. Each criterion is weighted differently, with appeal to audience, sentence structure and spelling attracting the most marks.

The spelling and grammar paper tests whether students are over reliant on “sounding out” when spelling, and whether they can use Standard Australian English.

The reading paper tests whether students can do more than decode the words on the page. It tests the extent of their vocabulary and whether they can infer information from texts.

Teaching to the test

A newly qualified teacher I know was asked by her supervisor what she was doing to prepare her class for NAPLAN. She replied “I’m teaching them”.

Great answer, although her supervisor was less then happy with her response.

Around two thirds of schools will spend several hours a week on test preparation as the new school term begins. This spurt of “teaching to the test” is not only ill-conceived, it is damaging.

Last year, scores in the writing test dipped. The curriculum and assessment authority (ACARA) which oversees the test, suggested it was because of “over preparation”.

That’s a polite way of saying - “stop making your kids learn essays by heart”. It doesn’t help students in the test, and it is probably changing their general attitude to writing.

Q. How many formulaic persuasive essays on school uniforms/canteen food/staying up late does it take to turn a child off writing?

A. Not many

As the old truism goes - it doesn’t matter how many times you weigh the pig, it won’t get any fatter unless you feed it. Test preparation is not teaching and it wastes valuable instruction time where students could be learning literacy and numeracy skills - skills which will serve them well one day in May when they are asked to do a national standardised test.

So - why do we have NAPLAN?

ACARA claims two purposes for NAPLAN test results.

  1. Provide information on how students are performing in order to support improvements in teaching and learning.

  2. Give schools and systems the ability to measure their students’ achievements against national minimum standards and compare student performance across states and territories.

Unfortunately only the second purpose is realised, as evidenced by the annual league tables and the competitive chest puffing of Education ministers around the country when the results are released.

The promise that the test will guide the allocation of funding and support to failing students has never eventuated.

No funding is allocated to provide interventions for identified students who are failing. We waved goodbye to that possibility when we waved goodbye to the Gonski reforms.

Is NAPLAN good for anything?

NAPLAN does have the potential to shed interesting light on students’ learning in a point in time, and offer valuable information about what needs to be done next to improve literacy and numeracy achievement.

Careful analysis of the spelling test results may reveal that poor spellers over rely on phonics. The writing samples may reveal that poor writers have little control over literary language, and instead write like they speak. The reading test may reveal poor readers have limited vocabularies and an inability to read complex clausal structures, reflective of their instructional diet of “readers”.

But little diagnostic use is made of the mountains of data about student learning the tests generate. Schools have neither the time, capacity, or knowledge to do the kind of analysis work that can shed real light on the individual struggles of their underachieving students and how they can provide suitable interventions.

Until minds and resources are put to the task of doing something meaningful with the data collected each year, NAPLAN is just a snapshot of what children could do one day in May - and not much else.