Let’s not undermine NAPLAN but make it even better

Blaise Joseph

15 May 2019 | The Australian

Some people don’t want the school system to be accountable to parents­. But they forget that governmen­t schools exist for parent­s and their children, not the other way around.

That memory slip is why the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy is blamed for any stress experienced by student­s, and for practically everything that is wrong with Australian education.

NAPLAN 2019 began yesterday with more than a million stud­ents due to sit the tests between now and May 24. But there is no reason why any student or parent should be anxious.

Critics often decry NAPLAN as a “high-stakes test” but this isn’t accurate. The truth is there are no rewards for high scores or punishments for low scores, and school funding and teacher salaries are never determined by NAPLAN results.

To put it bluntly: if students are seriously stressed about the tests, it is because of the behaviour of adults around them, not because of the structure of NAPLAN.

There is very little rigorous researc­h on the effect of NAPLAN on students but the existing evidence­ indicates most stud­ents don’t experience high levels of anxiety related to the tests.

Yes, almost all students (at any age) temporarily experience low levels of nervousness when doing an assessment. That is natural, but it isn’t even remotely comparable to serious mental health issues.

We aren’t doing students any favours in the long term by trying to coddle them at school and to remov­e all possible sources of even the slightest stress.

Despite the annual hype, no one is claiming NAPLAN results are the be-all and end-all of school success. It is simply an assessment of student progress in the key areas of literacy and numeracy.

There are, of course, many important elements of education that can’t be quantified, but essential skills such as literacy and numeracy are demonstrably measurable.

NAPLAN data is vital for improvi­ng the school system. The results are used to track learning outcomes at the national, state and territory, school system, school, and individual student levels.

For example, my recent researc­h identified the common practices across Australia’s top-performing disadvantaged schools — something not possible without a standardised national assessment.

And for parents — those who are primarily responsible for the education of children, yet so often sidelined in education debates — NAPLAN results can be very ­useful. Student reports give parents more information about their child’s progress, with an objective national benchmark against which progress can be measured.

A recent Colmar Brunton poll found the clear majority of parents supports NAPLAN and thinks the My School website is important.

But, contrary to some common claims, there is no evidence that NAPLAN results displayed on the My School website are the only factor parents take into account when choosing a school.

The tests are also a way of ­holding the federal and state ­governments to account for the productivity of the education ­system.

Regardless of who wins the election on Saturday, all school sectors will be receiving significant increases in government funding, well above inflation and enrolment growth.

Given the failure of previous spending increases to boost school results — not to mention the international data showing Australia already spends more per school student than the OECD average and several top-performing countries — the very least taxpayers can expect is having a standardised measure such as ­NAPLAN to evaluate the return on additional investments.

NAPLAN isn’t perfect, but the focus should be on making it better rather than simply scrapping it.

An improvement is the transitioning of the tests to an online format. This allows for tailoring of questions depending on student performance, which provides more precise inform­ation. This allows for adaptive testing in which the questions are tailored to each student depending on their performance as the tests progress — so students are given questions from a pool of questions appropriate for them, given their previous answers. And online tests reduce the turnaround time for the assessments which means the data is available for schools earlier in the year to help their stud­ents.

Politicians should stand up to the scaremongering and continue working to improve NAPLAN. Parents and taxpayers should demand­ NAPLAN is retained, to ensure transparency and account­ability. And students should just try their best and not worry.

Blaise Joseph is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of Overcoming the Odds: A Study of Australia’s Top-Performing Disadvantaged Schools.

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