This is what primary school children think about NAPLAN

By Angelique Howell

There are no obvious consequences for poor National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) performance by individual children. So the notion that children should not be too stressed about doing the tests is not uncommon. However, as I see it, the idea that NAPLAN is a low-stakes test is an adult idea. It imposes an adult perspective on children’s experiences.

Children’s perceptions of what constitutes a consequence of poor test performance may differ to those of adults. This led me to focus my PhD study on exploring how Australia’s National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is experienced by primary school-aged children, with a particular focus on the children’s own reports of their experiences.

My research shows that NAPLAN can be very high-stakes indeed for some children.

What is high-stakes testing, and why does it matter?

Whether tests are defined as high or low-stakes depends on the consequences attached to the scores. While low-stakes tests simply provide information for children, their families and teachers, high-stakes tests have significant consequences for poor test performance. These include holding students back a year or firing teachers whose classes do not achieve set targets.

Supporters of high-stakes tests argue that having consequences attached to test scores motivates otherwise lazy teachers and/or students to work harder and achieve better results. However, research has found that high-stakes testing has unintended consequences, including a negative impact on students.

Is NAPLAN a high-stakes test?

ACARA has consistently claimed that NAPLAN is a low-stakes test because the government does not use results to create league tables to ‘name and shame’ underperforming schools, control grade promotion or close underperforming schools. It is therefore assumed that children will experience the test as low-stakes.

However, high-stakes uses of the data, such as the MySchool website, which at the end of the day represents green for ‘good’ schools and red for ‘bad’ schools, and the negotiation of rewards payments through National Partnerships are steering the test in a high-stakes direction.

Not all children describe NAPLAN as a negative experience, and not all children construct the test as high-stakes. For example:


Children’s constructions of NAPLAN as high-stakes

However, reports of children’s anxiety are common. For some children, this anxiety is mild, for example, ‘before NAPLAN I get little tingles in my stomach. But when I’m in the test the tingles in my stomach go away’.

For other children, this anxiety causes more intense physical responses like shaking:


It is often argued that anxiety is a normal part of taking any test – this does not make NAPLAN high-stakes for children. However, research has found that children experience greater anxiety about high-stakes tests than classroom tests. This suggests that some children’s anxiety around NAPLAN may be due to their constructions of the test as high-stakes.

Some children worry about score comparisons as they convey that, ‘I don’t want to be below the average’, or ‘I could be ranked low’, with some fearing that they could be judged as foolish:


Others believe that they will let their families down if they don’t do well. For example, ‘When I thought I was going to fail I thought it may mean I’m failing my family’.

A few children construct serious consequences of failing NAPLAN. Although ACARA has been clear in saying that NAPLAN is not a pass/fail test, some children tell me that ‘I don’t want to fail a subject’.

One Year 3 child I worked with believed that she would be held back a year:


Another told me, ‘when the NAPLAN week was coming up, I kept having ‘after NAPLAN’ dreams, like what would happen if I did really bad … in one of them, I was getting kicked out of the school, which made me feel quite anxious’.

For some children, poor NAPLAN scores mean a future of unemployment and poverty as they believe that, ‘you should try your best to do NAPLAN. Because then you could never ever get a job and get money and maybe couldn’t even get a house!’

Why do some children construct NAPLAN as high-stakes?

The 2010 Senate Inquiry into the Administration and Reporting of NAPLAN Testing found that the government’s poor communication about the purpose of the test has led to confusion, which is intensified by inconsistencies between claims that NAPLAN is a low-stakes test, and high-stakes uses of the data.

These inconsistencies filter down to the school level, with one parent telling me that, ‘they say it isn’t important, but they seem to go out of their way to say how the school performs against state or national averages – which says to me that they kind of do think it’s important but they don’t want to say so explicitly’.

Media narratives around NAPLAN

Research suggests that for some parents, the confusion around NAPLAN’s purpose and importance is resolved through three apparently ‘common-sense’ media narratives around MySchool.

The first of these is distrust, which is reflected in parents’ comments such as, ‘It’s not all about getting A’s and F’s, it’s just to see if your teachers are teaching you correctly’. Some parents also distrust teachers who minimise test preparation to adequately prepare their children for what they believe is a very important test. As a result, one teacher told me, ‘You just hear the talk about how they’ll get them ready – how THEY’LL get them ready’.

The second narrative of choice is seen in the belief of some parents that strong NAPLAN results are important for enrolling their children into their choice of ‘good’ private schools; even though these schools maintain that they ‘do not use NAPLAN results as an admission tool’.

Finally, the narrative of performance is reflected in some parents’ belief that it is important to ‘know how my children are positioned within the school, the state, the nation’. One parent also told me that, ‘If my children were not meeting the required standard, I would take action’; although it wasn’t clear what this action might be.

Lack of consistency leads to confusion

In this emotionally charged and confusing climate, in which some children are positioned within negative parent-teacher relationships as parents and teachers blame each other for children’s anxiety, the children receive little, if any, clear and consistent information about NAPLAN. This leaves children confused about why they do the test, with older children in particular asking, ‘What’s the point of NAPLAN?’


In the schools I have worked with, principals and teachers tended to limit conversations around NAPLAN to reduce the focus on the test and thus children’s anxiety.   However, this may unintentionally result in failing to provide children with adequate information about NAPLAN which only adds to their confusion.

What schools can do

Not all children experience NAPLAN in the same way, and not all children’s experiences of the test match what their parents and teachers, even policy makers, believe them to be. With a lack of evidence to the contrary, some children are constructing NAPLAN as high-stakes; with children’s understandings of what constitutes a consequence of poor test performance not necessarily aligning with adult definitions of high-stakes testing.

While schools cannot address issues within the wider community, they can provide children with unambiguous information about the purpose of NAPLAN, which is to ‘identify whether all students have the literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for their learning’ (ACARA, 2013). This needs to be communicated to children in language they can understand, and in ways that do not focus excessively on NAPLAN as compared to school based assessments.

This recommendation is supported by research that suggests ‘in schools where tests were carefully explained, the children were more positive about them’. Children should also be provided with opportunities to ask questions about the test and its purpose, with an expectation that their questions will be taken seriously and answered accordingly.


Here is my PhD thesis Exploring Children’s Experiences of NAPLAN: Beyond the Cacophony of Adult Debate


headshot-photoDr Angelique Howell is a course coordinator in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, and is working on several research projects.  An experienced early childhood/ primary teacher, her research interests include social justice, with a particular focus on counting children and young people in, together with the other stakeholders, in educational research.  She recently published a book chapter entitled, ‘Exploring children’s lived experiences of NAPLAN’ in National Testing in Schools: An Australian Assessment, edited by Bob Lingard, Greg Thompson and Sam Sellar (Routledge, 2016).

2 thoughts on “This is what primary school children think about NAPLAN

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Thank you for a timely and informative piece. It’s a relief to read of some research which aims to find out what the kids who have to do the test actually think about it.
    The elephant in the room is the core assumption on which all educational assessment is based, namely that knowledge is some kind of reified ‘stuff’ which exists independently of the human mind and like other ‘stuff’ has mass and size which can be weighed and/or measured. If that conceptual metaphor is challenged, the whole rationale of tests like NAPLAN becomes dubious.

  2. Roseanne Byrne says:

    The biggest issue has always been the issue – schools using it to prove how good they are. NAPLAN pushes facets of learning out of the timetable in favour of reading, writing and mathematics. It narrows what is being taught as the focus changes to what is being tested. It is turning kids, and teachers, off learning. But all the heads and execs just want to be better than x school. NAOLAN performance is written into their development plans. The focus on job skills even in pre school is insane. Learning no longer matters. Content rules. And the deficits are showing, people are coming out of Uni with no idea of how to learn anything new. Stupid stupid country.

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