NAPLAN

The dark side of NAPLAN: it’s not just a benign ‘snapshot’

The release of the latest NAPLAN results this week identified a problem with student performance in writing. This prompted the federal minister for education, Simon Birmingham, to state these results “are of real concern”. And the CEO of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Robert Randall, added that “we’ll have a conversation with states and territories” to pinpoint the exact problem.

You get the message: there is a problem. As I see it we have a much bigger problem than the one the minister and ACARA are talking about.

At the moment, we have two concurrent and competing ‘systems’ of education operating in Australia, and particularly in NSW: one is the implementation of the state-authorised curriculum and the other, the regime of mass tests which includes NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate.

The bigger problem

 NAPLAN results get everyone’s attention, not just mainstream media and parents, but also teachers and school communities. Attention is effectively diverted from curriculum implementation. That means that resources, teacher attention and class time is soaked up with attempts to improve the results of under-performing students. It means that the scope and depth of the curriculum is often ignored in favour of drills and activities aimed at improving student test performance.

In a way, this is sadly ironic for NSW, given that new syllabuses rolled out across 2014-2015 have the development of literacy and numeracy skills as two of seven general capabilities. Specific content in these syllabuses has been developed to strengthen and extend student skills in these two areas. 

Before teachers had the chance to fully implement the new syllabuses and assess student learning, the NSW government jumped in and imposed a ‘pre-qualification’ for the HSC: that students would need to achieve a Band 8 in the Year 9 NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy test. Yet another requirement in the heavily monitored NSW education system.

And if the federal education minister has his way, we’ll see compulsory national testing of phonics for Year 1 students, in addition to the NAPLAN tests administered in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; and then in NSW, students will have to deal with the monolithic HSC.

So the ongoing and worsening problem for schools will be finding the space for teaching and learning based on the NSW curriculum.

Similar things are happening in other states and territories.

The dark side of national testing

As we know, mass testing has a dark side. Far from being the reasonable, benign ‘snapshot’ of a child’s skills at a point in time, we know that the publication of these tests increase their significance so that they become high-stakes tests, where parental choice of schools, the job security of principals and teachers and school funding are affected.

And here I will add a horror story of how this can be taken to extremes. In Florida in 2003, the Governor, Jeb Bush, called the rating of schools based with a letter A-F, based on test results, a “key innovation”. Using this crude indicator, schools in this US state were subsequently ‘labelled’ in a simplistic approach to numerous complex contextual features such as attendance rates, student work samples, the volume and types of courses offered and extracurricular activities.

Already in Australia NAPLAN results have a tight grip on perceptions of teacher and school effectiveness. And quite understandably, schools are concentrating their efforts in writing on the ‘text types’ prescribed in the NAPLAN tests: imaginative writing – including narrative writing, informative writing and persuasive writing.

So what might be going wrong with writing?

As I see it, the pressure of NAPLAN tests is limiting our approaches to writing by rendering types of writing as prescriptive, squeezing the spontaneity and freshness out of students’ responses. I agree it is important for students to learn about the structural and language features of texts and to understand how language works. However it appears that schools are now drilling students with exercises and activities around structural and language features of text types they’ll encounter in the test.

Has the test, in effect, replaced the curriculum?

Again taking NSW as an example, writing has always been central, dating back over a century to the reforms in both the primary and secondary curriculum in 1905 and 1911 respectively. The then Director of Education, Peter Board, ensured that literature and writing were inextricably linked so that the “moral, spiritual and intellectual value of reading literature” for the individual student was purposeful, active and meaningful. In addition to this, value and attention was assigned to the importance of personal responses to literature.

This kind of thinking was evident in the 1971 NSW junior secondary school English syllabus, led by Graham Little, which emphasised students using language in different contexts for different purposes and audiences. In the current English K-10 Syllabus, the emphasis is on students planning, composing, editing and publishing texts in print or digital forms. These syllabus documents value students engaging with and composing a wide range of texts for imaginative, interpretive and analytical purposes. And not just to pass an externally-imposed test.

In a recent research project with schools in south-west Sydney, participating teachers, like so many talented teachers around Australia, improved student writing skills and strengthened student enjoyment of writing by attending to pedagogical practices, classroom writing routines and strategies through providing students choice in writing topics and forms of writing; implementing a measured and gradated approach to writing; using questioning techniques to engage students in higher order thinking and portraying the teacher as co-writer.

These teachers reviewed the pressures and impact of mass testing on their teaching of writing, and like so many around Australia, looked for ways to develop the broad range of skills, knowledge and understandings necessary for all students, as well as ways to satisfy the accountability demands like NAPLAN.

Without the yoke of constant mass testing I believe teachers would be able to get on with implementing the curriculum and we’d see an improvement not only in writing, but also across the board.

 

Don Carter is senior lecturer in English Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Education, Master of Education (Curriculum), Master of Education (Honours) and a PhD in curriculum from the University of Sydney (2013). Don is a former Inspector, English at the Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards and was responsible for a range of projects including the English K-10 Syllabus. He has worked as a head teacher English in both government and non-government schools and was also an ESL consultant for the NSW Department of Education. Don is the secondary schools representative in the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia and has published extensively on a range of issues in English education, including The English Teacher’s Handbook A-Z (Manuel & Carter) and Innovation, Imagination & Creativity: Re-Visioning English in Education (Manuel, Brock, Carter & Sawyer).

This is what primary school children think about NAPLAN

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:

ist

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:

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:

nervous

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:

grade-retention

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?’

point

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).

Our obsession with school achievement data is misplaced: we’re measuring the wrong things.

In 2008 Australia began a national assessment program that tests school children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading, writing, spelling and numeracy (NAPLAN). These assessments only really entered the national consciousness in 2010 when the Rudd Government launched the My School website, after assuring concerned stakeholders that it would not be possible to directly compare schools and that we would not go down the path of English league tables.

Tell that to The Australian, which has since launched its own website called Your School. The site promises us that we can use it to compare our “own list of schools” online and provides every other media outlet in Australia with the resources to produce its own set of league tables.

Since 2008 and particularly since 2010 we’ve seen a major change in school practice and the national conversation. We’re all familiar with the story of Queensland where Premier Anna Bligh, shocked by her state’s performance in the first NAPLAN, wrote to parents stating that their children would sit practice tests in the lead up to the 2009 assessment.

I was Sydney at the time and blithely unaware of what was happening in QLD but I remembered it as a bold and progressive state: the home of Productive Pedagogies, New Basics, the Inclusive Education Task Force, and a play-based preparatory year firmly grounded in early childhood philosophy.

Upon returning to Brisbane in 2013, I was stunned by how much had changed. My first indication was when my daughter, who was in Year 9, began coming home every week saying “I @#!& hate Thursdays!”

Thursdayitis was a new one for me, but it didn’t take long for me to discover that Thursday, in Term 1 of Year 9 at her school, is “NAPLAN Turbo Day”, where everyone practised NAPLAN type exercises. Not long after that, you might be interested to know I received a form requesting that I sign off on disability support provisions. This was something I refused to do (not sure how much help another 5 minutes would be when the problem is not knowing the answer). Once NAPLAN was over, normal teaching returned and my daughter celebrated never having to do NAPLAN ever again.

But, nothing has surprised me as much as how NAPLAN and our obsession with student/school performance has changed school for school beginners. Being involved in research that looks at the relationships between school practice and disruptive behaviour, I see daily how an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy actually exacerbates the problems of children who start school with early learning and behavioural difficulties.

Researching the behavioural “Tipping Point”

Before returning to QLD, I had developed a longitudinal project based on what boys in special “behaviour” schools had told me about their formative school experiences. I wanted to understand the process of “hard-baking” that they and their principals described: how early learning and behavioural difficulties develop into severe acting out and full-blown hatred of school.

I wanted to learn how that happened and what contributions were made by school practices. By their own accounts, these 33 boys didn’t come to school already hating it. It was a process of attrition and one to which they say schools contribute.

The fact that the majority of these teenage boys nominated the early years (K-2) as the time when they began disliking school, that they received very little support, and that many had received their first suspension during this period told me that the very beginning of school was where the research needed to start.

The project, which has been seed-funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children, commenced in 2014 with 250 QLD prep children. As I was a research fellow and we didn’t have a huge amount of funding, I began spending a lot of time in prep classrooms.

Our research aimed to establish a baseline of what children bring to school so that we could track school liking, learning, language, relationships, attitudes and behaviour over time. This battery of assessments immediately highlighted that there is a very wide range between children, even within the same class.

Whilst we chose similar schools (all in disadvantaged areas of south eastern QLD and all with ICSEA scores one standard deviation below the mean) we had some children scoring well above age equivalence and others well below.

It was also very clear that the children who came to school well behind others were in real danger of remaining that way because their teachers either did not have the time to address the needs across their classroom or because the teacher did not have the skills to correctly identify those needs.

And, from my vantage point, NAPLAN definitely exacerbates this. The pressure to have children up to speed by Year 3 reaches down through the early years of school (even to Kindergarten or Prep) where the focus is heavily skewed towards literacy and numeracy. Of course reading, writing and numeracy are vitally important but our research is finding that some other very important things are being crowded out in the process.

What could be more important than the “3 R’s”?

The most important component of quality learning that is now under threat is time to establish warm and positive teacher-student relationships. The more frantic the classroom, the more focused teachers are on the business of “learning”, the more superficial and fraught the relationships. And this is a problem, particularly for children with early learning and behavioural difficulties for whom those relationships might actually make the difference between engagement and disengagement.

My behaviour school research has taught me that the process of “hard-baking”  is fuelled by resentment. There comes a point where pissed off young people decide that they’re going to get a bit of their own back, regardless of what it might cost them in the long run. Once they reach that stage, it is very hard to turn them around.

Building warm and positive relationships costs nothing in the scheme of things and little actions – regular conversation, a pat on the back, a smile, some extra help and a bit of recognition – could very well save connection to schooling for our most vulnerable students.

As my research teams prepare for the National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour being hosted at QUT this week, I have had much cause to think about the central message that I want the Summit to impart.

It’s this: if we have to measure things in order for them to matter, measure student-teacher relationships, school liking and school avoidance.

Find out how students feel about the place where they spend such a large part of their day and the strength of the relationships they have with the second most important adults in their lives.

This is something worth working on but it will never happen if all we measure and if all that counts are ABCs and 123s.

 

GrahambigLinda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee. The 2 day National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour  begins Wednesday 8th of July.