NAPLAN not perfect but doesn’t deserve to die

Jennifer Buckingham

13 April 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

Nary a week goes by without NAPLAN being in the news. Everyone has an opinion on the national literacy and numeracy tests — the most recent being aired by retired US academic Les Perelman who was commissioned by the New South Wales teachers union to write a report on the writing component of the assessment. His scathing remarks that the NAPLAN writing task is “bizarre” and creates “bad writers” were tailor-made for high media exposure.

Journalists, as a rule, like NAPLAN and the My School website where the school-level statistics are published. They like it for the principled reason that it provides information about school and system performance that was not previously available to parents and the public — what The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy called a ‘transparency regime’. But even better than that, it is a never-ending source of stories for education writers. Nevertheless, NAPLAN is constantly under attack and the media feeds the frenzy.

Many criticisms of NAPLAN are unfounded, and tend to drown out constructive criticism. Chief among them is that NAPLAN causes pathological levels of stress and anxiety among students. Surveys of teachers and parents indicate that some students experience anxiousness but there is no evidence that this is any more than the normally heightened emotion associated with any new experience, or wanting to do well. Alleged student stress and contestable claims about the negative ‘high stakes’ nature of NAPLAN should be examined, but are not a good reason to scrap it.

However, this does not mean that NAPLAN is perfect and should be preserved in amber. Perelman’s media comments were arguably polemic and it would be easy to dismiss him as a union ‘rent-a-demic’, but this would be a case of shooting the messenger before hearing the message.

Some of the criticisms in Perelman’s report warrant attention. For example, there is observational validity to his claims that NAPLAN writing tasks encourage and reward formulaic writing that is useful for younger students but limiting for older students. His argument that informative writing should be included in the assessment, and that it should be aligned to the curriculum, also has merit.

If there is to be any review of NAPLAN, as mooted by a number of state education ministers, it should be with a commitment to improving it rather than abolishing it. NAPLAN was a hard won achievement by Prime Minister Gillard. If we lose it, we lose a valuable educational asset we will never get back.

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