Australia’s numeracy and literacy testing across the country in years 3, 7, and 9 is a fairly bog standard literacy and numeracy test. It is also a decent, consistent, reliable, and valid assessment process. I believe the National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is a solid and useful assessment.
Education experts in Australia have carefully designed the testing series. It has good internal consistency among the assessment items. It has been shown to produce consistent results over different time points and is predictive of student achievement outcomes.
However there are special characteristics of NAPLAN that make it a target for criticisms.
Special characteristics of NAPLAN
What is particularly special about NAPLAN is that most students around the country do it at the same time and the results (for schools) are published on the MySchool website. Also, unlike usual in-house Maths and English tests, it was developed largely by the Australian Government (in consultation with education experts), rather than being something that was developed and implemented by schools.
These special characteristics have meant that NAPLAN has been under constant attack since its inception about 10 years ago. The main criticisms are quite concerning.
Main criticisms of NAPLAN
- NAPLAN causes a major distortion of the curriculum in schools in a bad way.
- NAPLAN causes serious distress for students, and teachers.
- NAPLAN results posted on MySchool are inappropriate and are an inaccurate way to judge schools.
- NAPLAN results are not used to help children learn and grow.
- NAPLAN results for individual children are associated with a degree of measurement error that makes them difficult to interpret.
The above criticisms have led to calls to scrap the testing altogether. This is a rather drastic suggestion. However, if all the criticisms above were true then it would be hard to deny that this should be a valid consideration.
A problem here is that, at present, there does not exist any solid evidence to properly justify and back up any of these criticisms. The Centre for Independent Studies published an unashamedly pro-NAPLAN paper that does a fair job at summarising the lack of current research literature. However, as the CIS has a clearly political agenda, this paper needs to be read with a big pinch of salt.
Rather than completely dismissing the criticisms due to lack of evidence, as was done in the CIS paper mentioned above, based on my own research and knowledge of the literature I would revise the criticisms to:
- In some (at present indeterminate) number of schools some teachers get carried away with over-preparation for NAPLAN, which unnecessarily takes some time away from teaching other important material.
- NAPLAN causes serious distress for a small minority of students, and teachers.
- Some people incorrectly interpret NAPLAN results posted on MySchool as a single number that summarises whole school performance. In fact school performance is a multi-faceted concept and NAPLAN is only a single piece of evidence.
- It is currently unclear to what extent NAPLAN results get used to help children at the individual level as a single piece of evidence for performance within a multi-faceted approach (that is, multiple measurement of multiple things) generally taken by schools.
- While NAPLAN results are associated with a degree of measurement error, so too are any other assessments, and it is unclear whether NAPLAN measurement error is any greater or less compared to other tests.
I realise my views are not provocative compared with the sensationalized headlines that we constantly see in the news. In my (I believe soberer) view, NAPLAN becomes more like any other literacy and numeracy test rather than some education-system-destroying-monster.
NAPLAN has been going for about 10 years now and yet there is no hard evidence in the research literature for the extreme claims we constantly hear from some academics, politicians, and journalists.
My views on why NAPLN has been so demonised
From talking to educators about NAPLAN, reviewing the literature, and conducting some research myself, it is clear to me that many educators don’t like how NAPLAN results are reported by the media. So I keep asking myself why do people mis-report things about NAPLAN so dramatically? I have given some thought to it and believe it might be because of a simple and very human reason: people like to communicate what they think other people want to hear.
But this led me to question whether people really do interpret the MySchool results in an inappropriate way. There is no solid research that exists to answer this question. I would hypothesize however that when parents are deciding on a school to send their beloved child, they aren’t making that extremely important decision based on a single piece of information. Nor would I expect that even your everyday Australian without kids really thinks that a school’s worth is solely to be judged based on some (often silly) NAPLAN league table published by a news outlet.
I also think that most people who are anti-NAPLAN wouldn’t really believe that is how people judge schools either. Rather, it is more the principle of the matter that is irksome. That the government would be so arrogant as to appear to encourage people to use the data in such a way is hugely offensive to many educators. Therefore, even if deep down educators know that people aren’t silly enough to use the data in such an all-or-none fashion, they are ready to believe in such a notion, as it helps to rationalize resentment towards NAPLAN.
Additionally, the mantra of ‘transparency and accountability’ is irksome to many educators. They do so much more than teach literacy and numeracy (and even more than what is specifically assessed by NAPLAN). The attention provided to NAPLAN draws attention away from all the additional important hard work that is done. The media constantly draws attention to isolated instances of poor NAPLAN results while mostly ignoring all the other, positive, things teachers do.
Also I will point out, schools are already accountable to parents. So, in a way, the government scrutiny and control sends a message to teachers that they cannot be trusted and that the government must keep an eye on them to make sure they are doing the right thing.
I can understand why many educators might be inclined to have an anti-NAPLAN viewpoint. And why they could be very ready to believe in any major criticisms about the testing.
NAPLAN has become the assessment that people love to hate. Therefore the over-exaggerated negative claims about it are not particularly surprising even if, technically, things might not be so bad, or even bad at all.
My experience with the people who run the tests
In the course of carrying out my research I met face-to-face with some of the people running the tests. I wanted to get some insights into their perspective. I tried my best to go into the meeting with an open mind so what I wasn’t anticipating was an impression of weariness. I found myself feeling sorry for them more than anything else. They did not enjoy being perceived as the creepy government officials looking over the fence at naughty schools.
Rather, they communicated a lot of respect for schools and the people that work in them and had a genuine and passionate interest in the state of education in our country. They saw their work as collecting some data that would be helpful to teachers, parents and governments.
They pointed out the MySchool website does not produce league tables. A quote from the MySchool website is: “Simple ‘league tables’ that rank and compare schools with very different student populations can be misleading and are not published on the My School website”.
Personally, I think it is a shame that NAPLAN testing series has not been able to meet its full potential as a useful tool for teachers, parents, schools, researchers and governments ( for tracking students, reporting on progress, providing extra support, researching on assessment, literacy and numeracy issues and allocating resources).
Value of NAPLAN to educational researchers
Where NAPLAN has huge potential, generally not well recognized, is its role in facilitating educational research conducted in schools. Schools are very diverse, with diverse practices. Whereas NAPLAN is a common experience. It is a thread of commonality that can be utilized to conduct and facilitate research across different schools, and across different time points. The NAPLAN testing has huge potential to facilitate new research and understanding into all manner of important factors surrounding assessment and literacy and numeracy issues. We have an opportunity to better map out the dispositional and situational variables that are associated with performance, with test anxiety, and engagement with school. The number of research studies being produced that are making use of NAPLAN is increasing and looks set to continue increasing in the coming years (as long as NAPLAN is still around). There is real potential for some very important research making good use of NAPLAN to come out of Australian universities in the coming years. There is possibility for some really impressive longitudinal research to be done.
Another positive aspect that is not widely recognized but is something mentioned by parents in research I have conducted, is that NAPLAN tests might be useful for creating a sense of familiarity with standardized testing which is helpful for students who sit Year 12 standardized university entrance exams. Without NAPLAN, students would be going into that test experience cold. It makes sense that NAPLAN experience should make the year 12 tests a more familiar experience prior to sitting them, which should help alleviate some anxiety. Although I must acknowledge that this has not received specific research attention yet.
Perhaps focusing on the importance of NAPLAN to research that will benefit schooling (teachers, parents, schools) in Australia might help change the overall narrative around NAPLAN.
However there are definitely political agendas at work here and I would not be surprised if NAPLAN is eventually abandoned if the ‘love to hate it’ mindset continues. So I encourage educators to think for themselves around these issues, and instead of getting caught up in political machinations, if you find yourself accepting big claims about how terrible NAPLAN supposedly is, please ask yourself: Do those claims resonate with me? Or is NAPLAN just one small aspect of what I do? Is it just one single piece of information that I use as part of my work? Would getting rid of NAPLAN really make my job any easier? Or would I instead lose one of the pieces of the puzzle that I can use when helping to understand and teach my students?
If we lose NAPLAN I think we will, as a country, lose something special that helps us better understand our diverse schools and better educate the upcoming generations of Australian students.
Dr Shane Rogers is a Lecturer in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University. His recent publications include Parent and teacher perceptions of NAPLAN in a sample of Independent schools in Western Australia in The Australian Educational Researcher online, and he is currently involved in research on What makes a child school ready? Executive functions and self-regulation in pre-primary students.