NAPLAN testing does more harm than good

Is NAPLAN worthwhile? Or is it just putting pressure on our kids for no good reason? AAP

New research raises questions about the impacts of the National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy (NAPLAN) on the wellbeing of students and on positive teaching and learning approaches. NAPLAN was introduced to improve literacy and numeracy in Australian primary and secondary schools, but the question has to be asked: is it worth it?

The suite of tests that make up NAPLAN, administered in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, are intended to measure three things: first, how individual students are performing; second, the extent to which national literacy and numeracy benchmarks are being achieved at each school; and third, how well educational programs are working in Australian schools.

Seven years of NAPLAN testing have produced mixed results.

Our team spent time in five school communities (in Victoria and New South Wales) where we interviewed students, parents, teachers and school principals. The report is possibly the most significant to date as it is the first to study the impact on students.

What did the research find?

The findings reveal that, against its stated goals, NAPLAN is at best a blunt tool.

The results aren’t universally negative. Some teachers find the results informative, there is evidence that in some schools NAPLAN results have been a trigger to implement literacy and numeracy programs, and some parents appreciate the straightforward assessment of their children’s achievement levels.

However, the research shows that NAPLAN is plagued by negative impacts on student wellbeing and learning. Our previous survey of teachers found that 90% of teachers reported that students felt stressed before taking the test.

This study of student experiences of NAPLAN draws attention to the need to take student wellbeing into account in educational initiatives. While Australian educational policies do not explicitly state all measures must be in the best interests of the children, they should conform to the ethical practice of “doing no harm”.

The many unintended consequences of NAPLAN stem from the failure to take the interests of all students seriously. The formal and inflexible style of NAPLAN is not conducive to learning and teaching approaches that emphasise deep learning.

NAPLAN, which uses language and a style of testing that is often foreign to students, strays from the systems built in classrooms that promote learning.

Our report found that a majority of students disliked NAPLAN and were unsure of its purpose. A majority reported feelings of stress.

Those who were struggling in maths and/or literacy were the most anxious about whether they would fail. Worryingly, schools reported that these students (whom the tests are designed to help) were often the ones least likely to sit the tests. A smaller proportion reported specific stress-related conditions such as insomnia, hyperventilation, profuse sweating, nail biting, headaches, stomach aches and migraines.

Majority want NAPLAN scrapped

When asked what message they would like to give to the Australian government about NAPLAN, a majority of respondents suggested that it should be scrapped.

However, many also made suggestions about how NAPLAN could be made more relevant (through the use of better examples and more accessible language) and how to lower levels of stress. Those in favour of NAPLAN focused on the opportunity it provides students to practise the art of sitting tests.

The detailed analysis of students’ experiences in five diverse Australian communities contained in our report provides the first systematic analysis of the impact of NAPLAN testing on students. It reinforces the views of many parents, school principals and teachers: that NAPLAN has significant unintended consequences, which have a negative impact on the quality of learning and student wellbeing.

Although NAPLAN testing is designed to improve the quality of education young people receive in Australia, its implementation, uses and misuses mean that it undermines quality education and does harm that is not in the best interests of Australian children.