This is why we need NAPLAN

Blaise Joseph

08 April 2019 | The Sydney Morning Herald

When Julia Gillard defied the odds in 2008 to successfully introduce NAPLAN, it may have been the greatest achievement by an Australian federal education minister in decades.

Australia finally had an objective, standardised measure of student achievement in the vital areas of literacy and numeracy, which could be used to track progress over time from the national level all the way down to individual children.

It was never expected to improve student results overnight. NAPLAN is like a thermometer: it tells you if you have a fever, it doesn’t cure you by itself. It’s how you use the data that matters.

You wouldn’t know it from the chorus of NAPLAN naysayers, but the 2018 report released yesterday shows that results have improved significantly in some areas since the tests were first introduced, such as in Years 3 and 5 reading. We want more consistent improvement in results across subjects, but there are a few good signs.

Nevertheless, NAPLAN remains controversial. Some stakeholders and teacher unions want it scrapped. But in response to student results that should be better, both sides of politics must resist the easy option of simply stopping the measurement of results.

More than $50 billion of taxpayer money is spent each year on schools. And in election news that won’t surprise anybody, the Coalition is promising a large school spending increase, while Labor is promising an even larger one.

But pork-barrelling aside, at the very least, both major parties should guarantee that basic accountability and transparency for school NAPLAN results will be kept, as an indicator of the return on additional taxpayer investments.

And recent opinion polls indicate the public is generally supportive of NAPLAN and the national focus on literacy and numeracy. The clear majority of parents support NAPLAN and the MySchool website, and 75 per cent of Australians think schools should prioritise maths and English.

Furthermore, many principals and teachers find NAPLAN data useful. When I interviewed principals for research on high-achieving disadvantaged schools, they were generally positive about NAPLAN and find the data useful to track student progress. And they all understand why “teaching to the test” doesn’t work.

For example, children can’t do well on the reading test if they can’t read — no matter how much schools “teach to the test”. The only way for a school to perform well is to give effective reading instruction to students throughout the year (which all schools try to do, anyway). Fundamental skills like literacy and numeracy are developed across a long period of time, and can’t be learnt by “cramming” a few weeks before NAPLAN.

That’s why it’s not easy to score well on NAPLAN tests. When high-achieving schools are identified, we should investigate the reasons for their success.

The recent improvement in NAPLAN results for Indigenous students is encouraging. But now we need to find out how some schools have been so successful in bucking the national average, so their achievement can be emulated across the system.

And it’s only possible to identify the most successful schools in Australia if NAPLAN remains a population test of all students — and not just a sample test, as has been recently proposed.

If we want to help disadvantaged students thrive at school, then we need to have an objective benchmark against which their progress can be measured, so that we can identify the most effective and efficient ways of assisting them.

It’s not just taxpayers who will be let down if NAPLAN is abandoned; it’s students too.

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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