The NAPLAN nervous ninnies

Steven Schwartz


NAPLAN results are out and high gain schools are receiving their just recognition. Yet, critics are calling for a review of NAPLAN because results have not improved as much as we would like. Criticising NAPLAN for poor literacy and numeracy is like blaming your thermometer for your fever. NAPLAN is not responsible for the deplorable differences in performance between wealthy and disadvantaged students. NAPLAN’s job is to expose the truth about those gaps, and that is what it is doing.

Perhaps it would help to see what NAPLAN really involves. Here are two sample questions: 

  1. Ben collected 68 cans. Jack collected 109 cans. How many cans did Ben and Jack collect altogether? 
  1. The following sentence has one word that is incorrect. We bought fresh bred. Write the correct spelling of the word.

These questions may appear harmless, but critics claim they traumatise our children, pervert classroom teaching and undermine education. They say that asking children to calculate sums and spell ‘bread’ can cause insomnia, stomach aches and nail-biting — and getting the answers wrong crushes students’ self-esteem. Teachers report they are forced to ‘waste’ valuable class time teaching students to spell and do arithmetic when they could be focusing on more important things such as ‘creativity’.

Ludicrous? Welcome to the surreal world of opposition to the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy, commonly known as NAPLAN.

Questions 1 and 2 come from NAPLAN’s Year 3 numeracy and literacy assessments, respectively. To answer them, a child must know how to read, add and spell. These are vital skills. NAPLAN simply tells us whether children have learnt them.

Testing did not begin with NAPLAN. Teachers have always used assessments to monitor students’ progress and identify those who need extra help. In addition, state education authorities administered examinations to ensure that schools were preparing children adequately for further learning.

Unfortunately, the curriculum, the assessment tests and the standards children were expected to achieve differed across teachers, schools and states. As a result, students participated in a postcode lottery — the content and quality of their education depended on where they lived and which school they attended.

The Australian Curriculum and NAPLAN have eliminated these inequities. For the first time, all Australian children are taught the same content, undertake identical assessments and are held to common performance standards. The benefits have been enormous. Using NAPLAN, teachers can identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and plan lessons accordingly. In addition, because NAPLAN is administered in years 3, 5, 7, and 9, schools can see how their students’ learning grows over time.

Because their curriculum and the assessment methods are now comparable, schools in one state can compare their educational outcomes with those of similar schools in other states. Authorities can identify high performing schools and disseminate their successful teaching methods nationally.

NAPLAN will eventually move from paper and pencil to online assessment. When this occurs, results will be available much earlier in the school year, but that is not the only benefit. In contrast to the present one-size-fits-all paper test, NAPLAN online will be tailored to the abilities of each student. Teachers will be given a precise picture of each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, moving NAPLAN online will allow the test to be customised for the special needs of students with disabilities.

Instead of welcoming these benefits, the critics of NAPLAN have stepped up their attacks. In addition to lowering self-esteem, making children ill and occupying too much time, NAPLAN is also blamed for low levels of literacy and numeracy, and for not measuring creativity, critical thinking and ‘personal attributes’. These claims are all baseless.  Apart from anecdotes, there is no evidence that asking students how to spell ‘bread’ makes them ill.

Critics of NAPLAN believe that self-esteem is protected by never allowing children to fail. But the truth is precisely the opposite.  By preventing children from experiencing failure, we stop them from gaining the self-confidence that comes from overcoming it.

If we want young people to be able to handle life’s inevitable slings and arrows, then we should not encourage them to avoid difficult situations. Instead, we should teach children how to cope with them. If children find NAPLAN stressful, imagine the stress they will encounter trying to find jobs if they leave school unable to read, spell and do arithmetic.

Claims that NAPLAN takes up valuable teaching time are simply untrue. Over 10 years of schooling, NAPLAN testing occupies an average of 3 minutes per week. Surely this leaves enough time for teaching. Teachers claim that they are ‘forced to waste time’ drilling students on sample NAPLAN questions. It is not clear who is exerting this force, but drilling is not an effective teaching method.  The only way to prepare students for NAPLAN is to teach them to read, write and do mathematics.

And perhaps this is one reason that some educators are so critical of NAPLAN — it exposes the truth. By identifying good and poor performers (such as the high gain schools recognized this week), NAPLAN makes school learning transparent.  Some may find the spotlight uncomfortable, and criticise NAPLAN even as online delivery promises timelier and more useful tests. It is time for parents, policymakers, and community leaders to enter the debate.

Professor Steven Schwartz is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies

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