The unions are at war with NAPLAN - The Centre for Independent Studies
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The unions are at war with NAPLAN

Like clockwork, NAPLAN’s most vocal critics have again shown they miss the point of the national assessment.  

Around 1.3 million Australian students are now sitting the annual test of foundational literacy and numeracy.  

Over 15 years, NAPLAN has proven to be a valued part of Australia’s education infrastructure. Many parents, teachers, schools, and policymakers trust it as a generally reliable — even if imperfect — indicator of academic performance.  

Despite any faults it may have, it provides a reliable picture of how the nation’s students are tracking. Repeated independent reviews judged it has an important role to play. 

But as with previous years’ campaigns, fringe educationalists and unions have resisted the test’s role in school accountability. They have urged parents to withdraw their children from taking the test and publicly demanded NAPLAN’s abolition; expressing concerns about its usefulness, the supposed pressure it applies to young students, and the public reporting of results.    

These efforts have been mildly successful over recent years.  

Queensland, in particular, has recorded withdrawal rates from NAPLAN at more than double the national average; due to the militant efforts of the Queensland Teachers’ Union. In 2022, there was concern so many students had withdrawn from the test that the integrity of the results themselves might be put at risk.   

This incessant undermining of NAPLAN is tiresome and counterproductive.  

While it’s true there are legitimate concerns and limitations of NAPLAN, many of these have been addressed in recent years.  

Students now sit NAPLAN at an earlier time in the school year, so parents and schools can receive results quickly and make educational adjustments if needed. And the move to an online format directly facilitates more timely results and enables more accurate testing of students by adapting questions based on students’ capabilities.   

But the ongoing rejection of NAPLAN reveals that unions aren’t interested in helping make the test as valuable as possible. Arguing the measure is redundant, stressful — and associated reporting is misused — makes it clear they oppose standardised testing entirely.  

However, NAPLAN adds to, rather than subtracts from, a rounded track of students’ academic performance. School- and class-administered assessments do not negate the role of standardised assessments. 

Unions claim parents can get a “deeper and more accurate understanding of their child’s progress” through alternative measures (such as report cards and interviews). Though teachers can identify student progress through classroom tasks and activities, ‘grade inflation’ means that many schools — consciously or not — generally score students more favourably than what standardised tests do.  

This is why further verifying student progress through an objective and external measure of achievement (i.e. NAPLAN) is valuable. It provides a reliable and comparable pool of data for schools, parents, and policymakers alike, supplementing — rather than conflicting with — teacher assessments of student performance.  

Further, the claim that NAPLAN makes students too stressed is spurious.  

On balance, research shows that mild ‘test anxiety’ is ultimately good for students. There is little reason to believe that students’ levels of stress are higher than they would be for other tests, or out-of-the-ordinary for particular students.  

NAPLAN is not a ‘high-stakes’ test, as there are no punitive consequences imposed on students for poor achievement, nor rewards for optimal performance. It is the adults that are more likely to be stressed about NAPLAN.  

Finally, unions’ criticism of standardised testing is also the usual rejection of performance reporting. 

There are some concerns that irresponsible public reporting of schools’ NAPLAN data on ‘MySchool’ could be weaponised to attack underperforming schools and teachers. But there’s little evidence of misuse — as a 2019 NAPLAN reporting review found.  

The solution is not to stop public reporting of school outcomes, but to help parents and educators be better users of performance information — particularly in making like-with-like comparisons, rather than comparing schools with vastly different contexts and student backgrounds.  

Moreover, public reporting of data ultimately benefits education, as OECD research shows more transparent school systems record better results than less transparent ones.  

Rather than working to simply blow up the system, unions should be working constructively to make better use of NAPLAN. But what the annual furore reveals is that the usual opponents of NAPLAN simply have no plan. 

Eddie Stephen is junior policy analyst in education research at the Centre for Independent Studies.