Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

Ignore the doubters. NAPLAN is important and it's working

Jennifer Buckingham

05 August 2015 | The Drum

teacherThe National Assessment Plan for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is doing what it was designed to do — provide a report card on school, state, and national progress in the fundamental areas of reading, writing, language conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and numeracy.

This year’s preliminary results, released today, indicate that national average scores in most measures in most grades have not improved since NAPLAN’s inception in 2008. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) which develops the tests describes national performance as ‘stable’, while newspapers used the words ‘stagnated’, and ‘flat-lined’.

There are two exceptions to the general trend­ — there has been greater improvement in Year 3 than in other grades, and greater improvement in Queensland and Western Australia than in other states and territories.

Students in Year 3 in 2015 achieved a mean score for the reading test that was statistically significantly higher than the mean score achieved by Year 3 students in 2008. Six of the eight states and territories had a significant improvement in their Year 3 reading scores over this period, with the biggest gains in Queensland schools. However, the number of states and territories recording improvements between 2008 and 2015 decreased with the age of students. Four jurisdictions improved their Year 5 results, two improved their Year 7 results, and only one improved their Year 9 results (Western Australia).

A similar progression in achievement can be seen for the other measures ­­­­― diminishing gains in higher school grades. Writing performance actually decreased from 2011 to 2015. This supports a well-known and enduring problem in education: it is much more difficult to have an impact on student learning in the higher grades. Achievement in high school is strongly related to achievement in primary school. The gap between low and high achievers widens over time and becomes increasingly difficult to close.

While it is impossible to confidently establish cause and effect, improvements in Year 3 reading, grammar and punctuation, and to a lesser degree spelling, are reason for optimism. Queensland was among the lowest performing states in 2008 and therefore had a lot of ground to make up. At least part of Queensland’s improvement would be due to the introduction of a full-time foundation (‘prep’) year in 2007, which means that children in Year 3 from 2010 on would be likely to have had an extra year of school.

The reason for reading improvement in other states is more difficult to pin down. Some have suggested that introducing phonics into the Australian curriculum may have had an effect. While this is possible and would be wonderful if true, it is not clear how many schools have introduced phonics instruction in the early years of school and how well it is being taught. This level of information is outside the scope of national NAPLAN reports.

While the national and state level NAPLAN results cannot tell us what has contributed to changes in student achievement, this is not the full extent of what NAPLAN offers. It also provides schools with finely-grained data on the performance of their students that they can use to investigate their classroom teaching strategies and the strength of their school programs. Schools have access to data showing in which questions their students excelled and those they did not. If a school sees that few of their students gave correct answers to the questions in the numeracy test involving fractions, for example, they know this area of teaching requires attention.

Parents also receive detailed information about their child’s test results. Parents who do not place much stock in NAPLAN can ignore the student report if they choose, but for parents who want some guidance on their child’s performance relative to other children across the state and the country, NAPLAN is a much-needed source of information. It is not a perfect assessment­ ― no test is perfect ― but it gives parents a starting point to ask questions about their child’s education. Bringing the test online will eventually reduce the amount of time between testing and reporting.

NAPLAN shines a spotlight on school performance every year. It does not tell policy makers, principals and teachers how to improve student performance, but it shows where the strengths and weaknesses lie, and is a valuable resource.

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