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The NAPLAN is trying to do too much. It needs urgent reform to be a ‘diagnostic’ test only

In a recent radio interview, Australian Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan was asked whether NAPLAN is the best way to check how students are going academically.

The minister said:

ministers have had a look at what else takes place across the globe, and NAPLAN is regarded as one of the best tools for measuring how our children are going at school. There are not many others which are preferred.

This would indicate that, at a certain ministerial level, there seem to be no serious identified issues with NAPLAN. But the recently released report of the NAPLAN review — commissioned by the governments of NSW, ACT, QLD and Victoria — says otherwise.

In fact, many reports over the 12 years of NAPLAN’s existence, including a Senate inquiry, highlight a plethora of issues with the test that need to be urgently addressed.

The NAPLAN is trying to achieve too much. If we keep it, it must be reformed to be a national school assessment tool for systemic improvement alone.

What is the official goal of NAPLAN?

The National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy (NAPLAN) is an annual assessment for all Australian school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Run by the National Assessment Program (NAP), it has tested certain types of skills that cover reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy.

The assessments are conducted every year in the second full week in May. The data and information gained from NAPLAN drives ongoing continuous improvement at school, state and national levels.

The NAP estimates around one million students sit the test each year. Exemptions may be granted for students with a language background other than English or with a disability. Parents or carers can also withdraw students from the testing program if there are religious beliefs or philosophical objections to testing.

NAPLAN moved from paper to online testing in some parts of Australia over 2018 and 2019. But the 2019 trial showed a serious problem with connectivity and computer glitches that affected nearly 40,000 students who took the test online.

The NAP has stated four main benefits for NAPLAN. They are that the data

  • helps school systems and governments implement policy in teaching, learning and school improvement

  • helps schools set goals and a direction by mapping individual student progress, and identifying strengths and weaknesses in teaching programs

  • helps teachers challenge high performers and identify students who need support

  • provides evidence for parents and students to discuss progress with their teachers and compare their performance against national peers.

The NAPLAN online version is tailored to student responses. It gives students questions that may be more or less difficult than the previous ones. This results in improved assessments and more precise results.

Read more: Five things we wouldn't know without NAPLAN

In a submission to the Council of Australian Governments in March 2019, the Gonski Institute recommended:

the sole purpose of the national assessment and reporting system should be to monitor education system performance against the purpose of education, particularly on the issues of educational excellence, equity, wellbeing and students’ attitudes toward learning.

However, NAPLAN needs to go through a deep overhaul before it can be considered “suitably fit for diagnostic purpose”.

What issues did the review identify?

Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT commissioned the independent review into NAPLAN to help ensure NAPLAN the test better met the needs of students, teachers and parents.

The review outlined serious deficiencies in the NAPLAN, including:

  • the high stakes nature of the test that has increased over time

  • the growing potential for the curriculum to be narrowed to focus on literacy and numeracy alone due to the fact some schools say they prepare specifically for the test

  • the results are announced too late to be useful to schools, teachers, students and parents

To remedy these flaws, the review has offered some recommendations:

  • changing the time the test is administered to earlier in the year so results can be used more productively by schools and teachers

  • shifting the test from Year 9, which had high absenteeism, to Year 10 when students are more mature and at the stage where they were making important choices about subjects in the senior years of school

  • introduce a new test to monitor critical and creative thinking in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Years 5, 7 and 10, which would widen the scope of assessment.

The review outlined the writing component of the test as the most problematic as it has led to increased formulaic writing in responses to a prompt. In turn, this leads to a formulaic way of test preparation at some schools.

The reviewers suggest the reforms be made and for the new and enhanced test to be named the Australian National Standardised Assessment (ANSA).

In classrooms, students learn critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, creativity and communication. NAPLAN doesn’t capture these aspects of student achievement. The NAP needs to seriously consider alternatives in the online NAPLAN that assess more complex skills students need for their future life and work. It could look to tests such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for ways to do this.

Read more: We need to reform NAPLAN to make it more useful

The NAPLAN online test has been cancelled this year, and the next NAPLAN test is scheduled for 2022. We need to make the changes now. We can’t afford to get this wrong any longer.

Corrections: this piece contained a number of inaccuracies, including some of the recent report’s recommendations and the amount of students who sit the NAPLAN. These have now been corrected, or removed.

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