NAPLAN is much more gain than pain

Blaise Joseph

16 May 2019 | DAILY TELEGRAPH

It’s that time of the school year again.  NAPLAN has started, and so have the shouts that the tests are ‘useless’ and ‘harm kids and schools’.

But what really harms children is when they’re not taught how to read or do basic maths. Going through life without basic literacy is far more stressful than doing a test every two years.

That’s why NAPLAN is so crucial. It allows us to identify students who are falling behind so we can intervene to help them.

It’s an objective, standardised measure of student achievement in the vital areas of literacy and numeracy — which means we can reliably track learning over time, from the national level all the way down to individual children.

The common claim that schools ‘teach to the test’ is just a furphy. The only way for a school to do well on NAPLAN assessments is to do the hard yards in effective teaching throughout the year (which all schools try to do anyway). This is because fundamental skills such as literacy and numeracy are developed over a long period of time.

For example, children who can’t read aren’t able to score well on the reading test — no matter how much a school tried to ‘teach to the test’ in the weeks leading up to NAPLAN.

Schools should see NAPLAN as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Despite the opposition of education unions, many principals and teachers find NAPLAN results useful.

The principals and teachers I interviewed for recent research on high-achieving disadvantaged schools were generally positive, and think NAPLAN is useful as an external benchmark against which school and student progress can be measured.

Parents generally back NAPLAN too. According to recent opinion polls, the clear majority of parents support NAPLAN, think the MySchool website is useful, and want schools to prioritise maths and English.

If students are falling behind in literacy and numeracy, their parents have a right to know. Yes, they get important information from the teacher-written tests, but NAPLAN gives them more information about their child’s progress compared to the national benchmarks.

The NAPLAN results available on the MySchool website are also important for parental school choice.

When we’re constantly told how parents must try to be more involved in their kids’ education, it’s utterly ridiculous to tell parents they shouldn’t be allowed to know how their school is performing compared to national standards.

Parents are primarily responsible for their children’s education, not the government. The school system exists to serve parents and their children, not the other way around.

Parents decide on a school based on many different factors, including academic performance. Having access to NAPLAN data empowers parents to make a more informed school choice, instead of having to rely on only subjective factors like school reputations, the shininess of student uniforms, and the glossiness of school websites.

NAPLAN also allows us to hold schools and governments accountable for the taxpayer dollars spent each year on schooling — currently more than $50 billion, and due to rise no matter which party is in government (despite school results not improving as the spend has grown).

The very least we should expect in return for our extra investment is to know how the education system is going.

It’s also a myth that NAPLAN is a ‘high stakes’ test. The reality is NAPLAN results don’t affect teacher salaries or school funding. And students don’t receive rewards for high scores or punishment for low scores. The results are used to improve teaching, assist students who are underachieving, and evaluate the effectiveness of education policies. So there is no reason for any parents or students to be anxious.

Sure, we are all at least a little nervous when doing a test, at any age, but is this really a big deal? It often sounds like test critics think we should try to shield kids from even the smallest bit of pressure (it’s not as though life is full of stress or requires resilience or anything like that, so what could possibly go wrong with the coddling approach?).

For NAPLAN tests this week and next week, everyone should relax. The results aren’t everything, but they are important — it’s essential that students become good readers, fluent writers, and competent in maths at school.

We owe it to students and taxpayers to ensure that schools are teaching literacy and numeracy effectively and based on evidence. That’s why NAPLAN must stay.

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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