Australia’s national literacy and numeracy testing program, NAPLAN, for 2018 begins today, on Tuesday 15th May. Classrooms have been stripped of all literacy and numeracy charts and posters, and chairs and tables set out for testing. Our news feeds will be full of adults talking about the program, especially what they think is going wrong with it.
I am much more interested in what children think about NAPLAN.
I know from my research that many children do not like the tests and it is not because ‘not many children like taking tests at any time’ as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which oversees the program, has told us.
Sitting tests is just one form of assessment and as such is a normal part of the rhythms and patterns of everyday school life: children go to school and now and then the type of assessment they do is a test.
But to claim NAPLAN is just another test is a simplistic adult perspective. Some children see it very differently.
I asked the children about assessments at school
I asked 105 children in Years 3, 5 and 7, as well as their parents, teachers and principals, about their experiences and views of NAPLAN. While they cannot speak for every child, their accounts give us insights into how children actually experience the tests.
When I spoke to the Year 7 children about which type of assessment they prefer, some favoured assignments, while others explained that ‘I prefer tests because if I get something wrong, I can see where I’ve gone wrong easier’, and ‘if I get a lot wrong it’s easier to talk to the teacher about it’.
So, what is it about NAPLAN that makes it such a negative experience for some children, even for those who normally prefer tests as a form of assessment?
I have written previously about why some children construct NAPLAN as high-stakes, even though it has been designed to be a low-stakes test. However, there are other major differences between NAPLAN and the usual type of school-based tests. There are big differences in the test papers as well the testing protocols, or conditions, under which the tests are taken.
The NAPLAN test papers
NAPLAN’s distinctive format causes confusion for some children which leads to mistakes that are unrelated to the skills being tested. For example, when colouring the bubbles related to gender, one Year 3 girl in my study mistakenly coloured the bubble marked ‘boy’.
Level of difficulty
While some children described NAPLAN as ‘easy’, with some equating ‘easy’ with ‘boring’, others found it difficult; with one Year 3 child saying, ‘People should think if children can do it’. For some children, especially in Year 3, this related to unfamiliar vocabulary, which was clear in their questions, ‘What is roasted?’, ‘what is a journal?’, and ‘what does extract mean?’ during practice tests. Others, particularly in Year 7, found the test difficult because the content was unfamiliar: ‘I got annoyed with some of the questions because I hadn’t heard it before’ and ‘some parts of the maths we had not learned about’.
Some children do prefer tests to other types of assessment, as I mentioned before, because they find it easier to talk through their answers with their teachers. However, NAPLAN results are simply indicated by a dot positioned within reported bands for their year level, with no substantive feedback. And the results arrive far too late, months after the testing, to be of use anyway.
The testing conditions
NAPLAN does not only involve the tests themselves, but the conditions under which the children take them. In addition to the change in the teachers’ role from a mentor, or helper, to a supervisor who reads scripted directions, NAPLAN’s testing protocols produce a very different classroom atmosphere to that which would be usual for a class or group test – particularly in primary school.
During NAPLAN, the room must be stripped of all displays and stimulus, and the students must sit in isolation so that they cannot talk with other students or see their work. Only the Year 7 children had experience in taking similar extended tests, which raises the issue of NAPLAN’s suitability for younger children. For the children in my study, this isolation was not usually a part of taking school-based tests; they simply completed their tests at their desks which stayed in the usual classroom configuration.
The Year 7 children were also encouraged to read a novel or continue with an assignment when they were finished school-based tests, to give all children enough time to finish. This is a sharp contrast to NAPLAN’s strict testing protocols, where such behavior would be seen as cheating.
Other children found NAPLAN difficult because of insufficient time: ‘I hate being rushed by the clock. When I am being rushed I feel like … I will run out of time which makes it super hard to get it done’ (Year 7 child), and ‘I felt a little worried because I didn’t get a few questions and there wasn’t much time left, so I didn’t know if I was going to do them all’ (Year 3 child).
Test preparation: The spillover from the testing week to everyday school life
These differences between NAPLAN and everyday school life, including school-based tests, mean that many teachers consider test preparation necessary. While most of these teachers did not agree with test preparation, they felt they had little choice, as ‘the kids need to be drilled on how the questions are going to be presented and to fill in the bubbles and all the jargon that goes with that’, and ‘to give them the best chance, to be fair to them’. As a result, the negative effects of the testing week spilled over into everyday school life in the months leading up to the tests; albeit to varying degrees within the different classrooms.
The daily ‘classroom talk’ which helped the children to clarify and refine their understandings was conspicuously absent. The students’ learning context shifted from tasks requiring higher order thinking skills, such as measuring the lengths and angles of shadows at different times during the day; pretending to be reporters to research the history of the local community; or developing and proposing a bill for the Year 7 Parliament; to isolated test practice which included colouring bubbles, ‘because if you don’t do it properly they won’t mark it’.
Some children found this shift frustrating, which affected student-teacher relationships, with some Year 7 children reporting that ‘[she gets] more cranky’ and ‘[he is] more intense’ as NAPLAN approached. For children with psychological disabilities, this shift was particularly difficult; with outbursts and ‘meltdowns’ resulting in negative consequences that deepened their alienation from their teacher and peers.
NAPLAN goes against everything we try to do in class
The separated desks and stripped walls not only make the classroom look different, but feel alien in comparison to the children’s everyday school life. This was reflected in some students’ reports that ‘It’s scary having all our desks split up and our teacher reading from a script and giving us a strict time limit’. This was supported by one of the teachers:
NAPLAN goes against everything we try to do in class. You’re getting the kids to talk to each other and learn from each other, and learn from their peers and challenge their peers, and yet they’ve got to sit on their own, isolated for such a period of time. It’s not even a real-life scenario.
ACARA maintains that the primary purpose of NAPLAN is to ‘identify whether all students have the literacy and numeracy skills and knowledge to provide the critical foundation for other learning and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community’ (ACARA, 2013). Further, that the testing environment must be tightly controlled to ensure that the tests are fair.
However, the issues I found in my research raise critical questions regarding NAPLAN’s ability to achieve the government’s primary goals of: (1) promoting equity and excellence in Australian schools; and (2) for all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active, informed citizen; as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians.
Many Year 7 students in my study reported that NAPLAN was a waste of time that hindered their learning; with some children reporting that as a result, they had disengaged from the test and any associated preparation. This raises significant questions about the extent to which NAPLAN can do the job it was designed to do.
As we embark on another year of NAPLAN testing, it is time to rethink the test, and this requires authentic conversations with, rather than about, students and their teachers.
Dr Angelique Howell is a casual academic at The University of Queensland. She is working on several research projects relating to students’ engagement in meaningful learning and exploring how young people, schools and communities can work together to enhance student engagement. An experienced primary teacher, her research interests include social justice; counting children and young people in, together with the other stakeholders in educational research; and apprenticing students as co-researchers.