Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

NAPLAN future secured, but improvements will continue

Glenn Fahey

18 July 2021 | Canberra Times

The agreement reached by Australia’s education ministers earlier this month puts to bed the senseless and toxic debate over the national assessment’s future. The tired dispute over keeping or scrapping the test has served only to distract from the mission of ensuring it works better for students, teachers, and parents.

For years, the national conversation has been gripped by a misleadingly binary split.

The pro-NAPLAN camp is characterised as being pro-parent, but anti-teacher. In the most extreme form, the basis is that teachers and schools may go rogue, without an objective and nationally-comparable marker of student and school achievement to hold them to account.

And the anti-NAPLAN side is seen as pro-teacher and anti-testing. In its most extreme form, blind faith in teachers is expected, while parent and taxpayer accountability is dismissed. Standardised assessment is seen as an affront to teachers’ professionalism and must be done away with.

But this binary has obstructed the truth that most sit in the pragmatic middle. Most people – including most teachers who take a different position to their union representatives – see a constructive role for standardised assessment, but may feel NAPLAN could be improved.

They concede NAPLAN is a decent barometer, but should be one among other indicators in judging student outcomes. And many approve of NAPLAN as an assessment tool, but query whether it’s been tasked with being too many things.

All of which are valid and legitimate positions. All push in a constructive direction of continually improving the test. Yet, the pragmatic perspective has often been drowned out by vocal opposition to NAPLAN.

This has largely been rallied by education unions, fringe educationalists, and parents who reject the educational mainstream. Persistent agitation includes near-constant strikes, boycotts, scare campaigns, and lobbying to ‘review’ NAPLAN out of existence. Occasionally, state education ministers have piled on in parochial defiance of Canberra.

But that prolonged resistance has largely come up empty.

Union-backed activism has backfired by alienating parents. And last year’s review into NAPLAN failed to provide the smoking gun that opponents anticipated. Like previous reviews, it effectively found NAPLAN is broadly working but could use some tweaking. With education ministers now united in that conclusion, the pragmatists have decisively won the day.

The test now is for policymakers to show that NAPLAN is not only here to stay, but that it will be an increasingly useful tool. That’s why proposed improvements to timeliness, timing, and scope of tests should be welcomed.

The newly promised two-week turnaround is a game changer in living up to NAPLAN’s potential as a diagnostic tool. In the past, educators have rightly noted that it’s difficult to make valid insights when there’s a lengthy delay in receiving student results.

The plan to shift the test from May to the start of the school year is also an improvement. In combination with speedier timeliness, it means teachers can take greater ownership of students’ outcomes and progress. And by identifying the students who might benefit most from remedial attention as early as possible in the year, this can be better planned and coordinated.

The proposal to expand the range of tests – including opt-in Science, Digital Literacy, and Civics and Citizenship assessments – won’t be for everyone. But it’s a sound response to the critique of the supposed narrowness of NAPLAN in its current form; covering foundational literacy and numeracy. By remaining opt-in, it gives schools and systems the scope to participate in priority areas of interest and it doesn’t compromise the need for core NAPLAN domains to remain mandatory for all schools.

These improvements further build on work over recent years to develop NAPLAN into its online form. This has enabled adaptive testing – meaning more accurate measurement of student achievement, compared to pen and paper testing – as well as speeding up the turnaround of results.

Student achievement in NAPLAN has remained largely flat since it was introduced in 2008. As we move ahead, it’s clear NAPLAN will continue to be questioned – as it should be. The test isn’t perfect, and perhaps no assessment tool ever is. But policymakers’ commitment to its future is a signal we’ve matured beyond the binary of simply keeping or dumping it.

With the cloud over NAPLAN’s future finally lifted, policymakers can now focus on improving the national assessment – and ultimately improve student outcomes.

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