If you ever want to win over a group of teachers quickly, then bag NAPLAN. As a teacher myself, I have heard many friends and colleagues argue against the supposedly evil NAPLAN regime, but are their concerns justified?
After reviewing research on systemic school testing, school improvement and evidence-based teaching, my short answer is NO! NAPLAN is not a dirty word! This does not mean that everything associated with NAPLAN (e.g. simplistic school rankings and excessive test preparation) are a good idea, but the tests themselves are not bad. In fact, they can be quite helpful.
Let explain why I hold this view.
NAPLAN is more reliable than other forms of assessment. Despite popular claims to the contrary, NAPLAN is a valid and very reliable test. ACARA sends copies of proposed questions the various educational authorities in all states and territories for review. ACARA gathers further feedback from classroom teachers, as well as specialists in inclusive schooling and indigenous education. Draft test questions are then trialled across jurisdictions with the results analysed by experts in educational measurement before further fine-tuning occurs. I don’t know of any other assessment used by teachers that has this degree of rigour.
Clearly NAPLAN draws upon good expertise in designing and reviewing the test, excellent research knowledge and technical expertise in developing the achievement scale and world-class psychometric methods in analysing and reporting the results in a meaningful way for teachers and parents.
OECD Reviews of Evaluation and Assessment in Education: Australia
NAPLAN provides valuable data that adds value to what teachers already provide. NAPLAN offers objective insight into how students are doing at school. Teachers make judgements about how well students are doing, but they can only use their own class as a reference point (e.g. a child may be a big fish in a little pond). NAPLAN compares a student’s performance to the performance of all students in that year level across Australia. Furthermore, once students have sat NAPLAN more than once, it shows how far they have progressed over a two-year period.
NAPLAN is not a diagnostic test because it is not designed to probe specific weaknesses of individual students. However, it does identify students who need additional support or extension in different aspects of literacy and numeracy. Schools can then use diagnostic tests to help create tailored support for these children.
At a collective level, schools can use NAPLAN to evaluate the impact that teaching practices and programs are having on students’ results. By analysing the data, schools can also see if particular classes or year levels are doing unusually well or poorly in certain areas. However, John Hattie highlights, such feedback is only valuable if teachers modify their instruction in light of the data.
NAPLAN tests are providing quality information for educational decision making of a kind that is unavailable in many other countries.
Australian Council of Educational Research
NAPLAN is not designed to be a high-stakes test1. Even NAPLAN’s harshest critics2 admit that there are several key differences between NAPLAN and the high-stakes testing regimes in the UK and the USA. Within these regimes, schools that perform poorly face closure. This is not the case in Australia. In fact, schools that do poorly on NAPLAN are offered additional support and even financial assistance to help them boost their students’ results. In the USA, students who do poorly cannot progress to the next level of education. NAPLAN is not used in this way. The only tests in Australia that operate in this way are those that students sit at the end of Year 12. Some people3 claim that the publication of NAPLAN results on MySchool makes NAPLAN a high-stakes regime. Given the context-rich nature of MySchool data, this claim is dubious; and even if it was true, it is an argument against MySchool rather than against the tests themselves.
There is no reason why NAPLAN should cause students undue stress. For Year 9 students, the tests take less than 4 hours spread over 3 days. For Year 3 students, the tests take less than 3 hours, again spread over 3 days. This is not an onerous imposition. Misinformed people claim that research shows it causes student stress, when in fact the only research indicating this refers exclusively to high-stakes testing, where the results determine what the educational pathways that the child will and won’t be able to do the following year4. In the USA, one teacher witnessed a colleague yelling at a nine year old girl about an upcoming test, “This is your life on the line! Your future depends on this! Sit down, shut up, and let’s be serious!” As I explained earlier, this is not the case with NAPLAN. The results are not intended to be used to hold children back, or to name and shame anyone. It is simply one short assessment among many others, that children do every couple of years. Still, many teachers will tell you they have seen students get ‘stressed out’ about NAPLAN. To be honest, I have seen this myself. However, NAPLAN doesn’t cause this stress. In some cases, students need to learn to cope with a little pressure as such pressure is a fact of life. In other cases, parents and teachers are transferring their own over-blown stress onto the kids.
If NAPLAN is being made high-stakes for students, with some reported to be anxious and even ill when the tests approach, this is due to teachers transferring stress to their students.”
Professor Barry McGaw Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne
Some people worry that NAPLAN tells children how they are going, even if that means telling them that they are doing poorly; and that telling children that their performance is not at an acceptable standard is bad for their confidence and self-esteem. For example, a recent QSA report expressed concern that full cohort testing programs such as NAPLAN lowered the self-esteem, self-image and long term confidence of under-performing students. Armed with the best of intentions, some teachers (and parents) believe that praising children’s work, even when it is poor, will help to boost their self-esteem, which in turn will boost their performance. They think that we have to make students feel good about themselves, so that achievement can then flow. Sadly, it doesn’t work. Research shows there is a low correlation between self-esteem and achievement5. Of course self-esteem matters for a host of other reasons, but in the words of one world-renowned teacher:
Delusion is not the answer. Those who celebrate failure will not be around to help today’s students celebrate their jobs flipping burgers…. Someone has to tell children if they are behind, and lay out a plan of attack to help them catch up.
Rafe Esquith, Teacher
To make matters worse, praising mediocrity sends a subtle, powerful and often unintentional message that mediocrity is all that they believe the student is capable of achieving. Teachers (and parents) sometimes need to practice a little tough love.
Lowering standards just leads to poorly educated students who feel entitled to easy work and lavish praise.
Carol Dweck, Psychologist
Other people worry that NAPLAN leads to poor teaching. Given that teachers don’t know the questions beforehand, they cannot really ‘teach to the test’ – except by teaching children how to read, write and spell. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing for teachers to do. What is a real concern, is that some parents and teachers choose ill-informed ways to try to help their children. Bookstores are now swamped with a wide range of test preparation books, and many teachers go overboard with practice tests and even recommending special diets. Research shows that teaching test taking is not effective6. The best way to prepare students for NAPLAN is to teach them well each and every day.
I have also heard claims that NAPLAN suppresses creativity. Supposedly, it causes schools to move away from being places of creativity to places that teach content and skills. Given that content includes such radical things as basic mathematics and knowledge of the English language, and that skills include controversial ones, such as spelling, reading and writing – I cannot see the merits of the latter part of this argument. As for suppressing creativity, I value creativity and have a long history of involvement with the Arts, as well as programs such as Optiminds and Tournament of the Minds. Yet, nurturing creativity and teaching basic skills is not an either-or option. You can do both. In fact, there is hard research7, which shows that creativity programs improve academic performance.
- Provides unique and valuable data
- Not the same as high stakes testing regimes in the UK and USA
There is no need for NAPLAN to:
- Cause undue student stress
- Lead to poor teaching
- Suppress creativity
And it is good thing to tell parents how their kids are going
- See Barry McGaw article NAPLAN Myths: It’s Not A High-Stakes Test (Barry is the Chair of the Board for ACARA) [↩]
- See, for example, reports published by the Whitlam Institute. [↩]
- See, for example, Lingard, B. (2010). Policy Borrowing, Policy Learning: Testing Times In Australian Schooling. Critical Studies in Education, Vol. 51, No. 2, pp. 129–147; Lobascher, S. (2011). What are the Potential Impacts of High-stakes Testing on Literacy Education in Australia? Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 34, 2, pp. 9-19. [↩]
- See Note 2 [↩]
- Hansford, B. C., & Hattie, J. A. C. (1982). The relationship between self and achievement/performance measures. Review of Educational Research, 52(1), 123–142. [↩]
- Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge. [↩]
- Higgins, S., Hall, E., Baumfield, V., & Moseley, D. (2005). A meta-analysis of the impact of the implementation of thinking skills approaches on pupils. London: Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. [↩]