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Criticise if you must, the NAPLAN tests are valuable for teachers

NAPLAN testing can’t be all bad if the government is still committed to it, can it? Shutterstock

Since NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy began in 2008, everyone and their dog has criticised the process. Detractors say teachers are forced to teach to the test, it pits schools against each other and it causes students nothing but anxiety. But there must be some positives given the government is committed to its continued use and is planning to move to an online format.

NAPLAN assesses reading and comprehension…

Does NAPLAN assess useful things? A recent analysis suggests it does. A soon-to-be-released report, What does NAPLAN reading test?, shows that NAPLAN reading tasks assess students’ abilities:

  • to use synonyms and paraphrase what they read
  • to work out the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases
  • to question what they read
  • to link ideas across sentences and paragraphs
  • to summarise and to abstract the main ideas and themes in a text
  • to predict and infer, synthesise, evaluate, compare and organise ideas.

NAPLAN assesses how well students at each year level use these comprehension skills with different texts that become gradually more difficult. These more difficult texts require readers to use more reading skills.

Are these types of reading comprehension skills worth assessing? The 2000 National Reading Panel reports identify them as essential literacy skills. Being able to say what you read “in your own words”, summarise it, identify the questions it answers and speculate and predict the meanings of unfamiliar words are valuable text comprehension skills. As well, they are the skills that separate higher and lower levels of understanding on international benchmark assessment scales.

These types of skills are increasingly important in an information-rich world. Readers who use them are more able to comprehend what they read and can do more with the understanding they gain.

But how is this helpful for teachers?

NAPLAN reading data help teachers see how well their students comprehended multiple genres of varying difficulty. The data can motivate teachers and schools to probe and investigate further how well their students use these skills, which ones they may need to teach explicitly and with what types of texts.

The data can help teachers put together profiles for each child so they know how best to teach them individually. If they do this, are they “teaching to the test” or using data to help decide what their students need to learn next?

The reading comprehension skills assessed by NAPLAN tasks have a strong research basis and are internationally valued. How a school actually uses the data received depends on the quality of its professional knowledge and on what its teachers know about how to put data into practice.

We need a balance in the debate

My position here doesn’t target the criticisms usually made of the NAPLAN assessment regime by educational commentators. In addition to perceived flaws in the use of data for comparative purposes, these have more recently related to test anxiety, the multiple choice test format and the time lag between test administration and outcomes.

These criticisms need to be balanced against the usefulness of the data available from NAPLAN. What they tell us about students’ knowledge and skills can influence the quality of teaching at student, grade, school, state and national levels.

To continue to improve teaching Australia needs the types of data covered by NAPLAN. Their collection needs to minimise perceived negative influences such as test anxiety, and its use for comparative purposes needs to be resolved. NAPLAN-type data will become increasingly important, however, as the range of contexts in which individuals need to comprehend and use text proliferates in the future.

The report What does NAPLAN reading test? will be published in October 2014.

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