If you have a child in Year 3, 5, 7, or 9 who is not home schooled then their class will have been scheduled to participate in the Nation wide standardised testing series known as NAPLAN. As both a teacher and a mother I figured that I could discuss the testing process from both sides of the fence, discuss some myths and open up discussion for parents who are interested in knowing more.
The NAPLAN testing is a popular short-lived topic in the media. It allows for commentary on teacher quality, school league tables, resilience in children,anxiety in children, the cotton wool wrapping of children, school funding and an endless banter of other possible school/political debates. It can be difficult to determine what is fact, what is propAganda and parents are left asking questions like “Did I miss something?”, “Should I be worried?” and “Can my child still get their HSC?”.
I will state upfront that while I have administered NAPLAN tests my personal preference would be for the removal of NAPLAN from our schools for a variety of reasons which I will discuss at the end of the post. I will also state that yes my eldest child participated in NAPLAN.
What does NAPLAN stand for?
NAPLAN the acronym stands for The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy.
People say NAPLAN isn’t used for it’s intended purpose? What was it meant for?
NAPLAN was originally created as a tool to collect statistical data for the purpose of comparing results between States. It was not intended to be used for tracking the individual progress of students. One way of thinking about it is shifting from a macro to a micro view.
But data collection is a good thing right?
Data collection certainly can be a positive thing and can inform planning, allocation of resources and is used for funding distribution. However data requires analysis, data needs to be delivered in a timely manner and data needs to be interpreted correctly. When data is looked at are apples being compared to apples or is it apples and oranges?
So should I be for or against NAPLAN?
The decision to be for or against NAPLAN is a personal decision. In the past NAPLAN has been well supported but certainly in recent times there has been a public dislike for what seems to be an increased forcing of standardised testing on children within education. You read things such as “going down the path of American schools” while reports of “Finland giving away standardised testing”.There are arguments for an against NAPLAN.
“NAPLAN teaches kids to be resilient”
You would be hard pressed to find an educator or parent who does not want to see a child develop resilience. There are many ways to support children in developing resilience and yes, it could be said that having to cope with a situation in which a child feels stressed or anxious is working towards building resilience. However it is the way we want to develop resilience in our children. It is a little bit like tossing a child into the deep end of the pool and when they don’t drown commenting “look how it helped them learn to swim”. I think we can do better.
“But data is important to teachers and schools”
Absolutely and I know for a fact that the school will already have data on your child. Teachers are professionals who have been trained in the skills of assessment. Your child’s teacher does not need your child to complete NAPLAN to have individual data. Heaven forbid your child is hit by a car and can’t sit the tests, your child’s teacher will still have data on your child. This is what they use to write school reports. Their knowledge of your child is not just based on a hunch.
Where NAPLAN is useful for schools is looking at cohorts or subgroups of students. This can assist in analysing programs that may be running in schools. An eg of this may be that a school shows Year 3 students have above average spelling results when compared to schools in the same region with similar demographics. This may show the K-2 team that their phonics program is working well. The results in Year 5 may show that Writing is strong or Numeracy is strong however the spelling results have dropped. Results like these may prompt teachers to look at ways to ensure spelling continues to be a focus in primary years. This is just an example but this is the way that schools tend to use data and align results with the whole school plan.
“well we did tests at school and it will prepare them for when they are older”
Development is not a race nor a competition and we need to move away from this mindset to foster our students full potential. Children don’t need to be forced to practice the skills they will need to demonstrate as a teenager. In any other context that would seem ludicrous. The old ‘well I did it at school’ argument also gets tossed around. I am sure you can think of lots of things that you did at school which your child also doesn’t need to copy. Research has given much to teachers in recent years to show how children learn best. This has led to changes in methodology and how it was done in the past is not always the best way. Yes we may have done more tests at school but in many classrooms this is not the way any more. There is a stronger inquiry based process of learning with cooperative problem solving, hands on activities with concrete materials and a trial and error scientific method of discovery based learning. Students are not as familiar with tests
“Well we need NAPLAN because it shows that our students are falling behind the rest of the world in Literacy and Numeracy and now we are getting left behind”
For the last 8 years the results of students have plateaued. Our schools have adopted researched based methodologies which have moved clasrooms away from test based assessment of student achievement. This doesn’t mean students have stopped learning or developing. It may however impact on how well students test.
“my child isn’t stressed by it, so I don’t care about NAPLAN”
It is wonderful that your child is not stressed by the process of NAPLAN and that is exactly how we would want children to be. The test should be taken seriously but not be a cause for major concern. However that doesn’t mean that the issue of standardised testing in schools does not need to be discussed further.
“NAPLAN is the devil, my kids are freaking out!”
For some students NAPLAN causes considerable concern. The practice tests which students also complete in the lead up to NAPLAN also can compound the anxiety students feel. Students in Year 3 have probably never done a similar test. The NAPLAN test arrangements can be very different to normal classroom routines and this can be unsettling for students. With changes for Year 9 students in NSW there is now considerable concern in regards to obtaining the HSC. The government says students shouldn’t feel pressured but that doesn’t mean they won’t and it does nothing to help students who do!
“We need NAPLAN to know how our kids are going at school compared to everyone else”
My response to this is two-fold. Firstly you don’t need NAPLAN to know how your child is going at school because that is what their classroom teacher is for. Communication or a parent teacher interview looking at his/her work will give you a more comprehensive picture. If you are relying on NAPLAN to inform you then you are only being shown a sliver of the learner your child is. You will not know a)does my child not know the content b)did my child not test well. The test is a single snapshot not the full picture. It doesn’t take into account context – the fact that a grandparent may have died and the child is upset or distracted, or that the child has been unwell with a cold and wasn’t feeling 100%, that they had a fight with their best friend on the playground, or that the child is a perfectionist and doesn’t cope well with time limits.
The second part is why do you need to compare to other students? This is a big picture question for parents to really examine their thoughts on the topic. Education is not a competition. If your child is doing their best to apply themselves does it matter what their best friend got? Does it change anything for your child? Why does it change the way you view your child? Are marks the measure of success for your child? This may be a personal afront to you but in an education system that grades children from the age of 5 from A-E these are the questions we all should be thinking about.
“I can’t do anything anyway because NAPLAN is compulsory”
NAPLAN is not compulsory and it is every parents right to opt out from the assessment by filling out a form. Some schools make the obtaining of these forms more difficult for parents to deter them from excluding their kids. The reason for this is schools want to alleviate any undo concerns parents may have and also because school funding is linked to NAPLAN results. If school principals have a large percentage of students withdrawn from NAPLAN the reality is school funding will be impacted. Irrespective of this, NAPLAN is not compulsory and whether or not your child participates is up to you. Schools must respect your wishes and your child cannot be punished for not participating.
“My child’s school asked me to keep my kid home”
This is a comment I have seen several times written in online forum discussions. Schools cannot ask you to keep your child home. If your child is withdrawn from testing you can ask for your child to be accommodated in another classroom at school in the same way that classes sometimes are split when a teacher is away and a CRT isn’t used to cover the class. I have never worked anywhere that a school has asked a student to stay home. I have however known of many instances where parents have decided to keep their child home if the remainder of the class is doing testing all day. This is not supported.
“My teacher only cares about the results of the NAPLAN and doesn’t want my kids to drag the results down – what a bitch!”
I can assure you this is not the case. I have had to recommend to parents that their child be exempt from NAPLAN and I can assure you it is not due to the overall results for the grade for NAPLAN. Teachers consider whether the student is able to sit and cope with the test when they have a disability. Can the student access the test with modifications or is it still beyond their ability. Will the stress the test causes be worth the data information for that individual student?
The test taking situation can be very different to the usual learning environment. Take this example:
Your child goes to school to a warm, friendly, classroom with flexible seating that involves a lot of problem solving and group work. There is always a buzz in the room that comes from students communicating and chatting when on task. The teacher has well developed systems for giving in lesson feedback. Students feel comfortable asking a friend for help, raising their hand, using anchor charts or visuals around the room or getting out of their seat. The students know the teacher will help them, and show them different ways if they still do not understand. There is minimal levels of frustration when focusing on work. Students can move around the room to take a break if they are really struggling. Your child may have a book or a worksheet that looks different to their friends because their work is differentiated. The teacher has clear learning criteria and intentions on the board so your child knows what they are learning about and what they have to do to be successful.
Your child enters the classroom, or perhaps NAPLAN is being conducted in a different classroom. All the desks and chairs have been set up into rows. Your child looks around the room and a lot of those visual charts they usually reference have been taken down in line with test protocol. The teacher explains that this test will not allow for any talking. There will be zero opportunity for group work. When your child begins the test their preferred learning style is not taken into account. Your child raises their hand for the teacher to move to the desk to answer the question. The teacher can read the question to the child but your child still doesn’t understand. Instead of being able to help the student the teacher if left to say “I am sorry I can’t tell you what to do, you need to work it out yourself”. If your child could work it out themselves their hand would not be up. Your child is confused and frustrated but has to continue with more of the test. Your child asks the teacher if they are right but the teacher cannot tell them whether the answer is correct or not.
This example is a brief one but shows why some students struggle with NAPLAN. It is not what their usual learning environment is like.
I also read these comments
“I am not a fan of NAPLAN but when I chose this school I chose it because they did so well in the NAPLAN and I knew it would be a great school”
This makes me laugh. I hear this so frequently. The “OMG I disagree with NAPLAN” and then on Facebook “LOOK, LOOK my child scored a Band 6 #SUPERSTAR”. Parents take pride in their children’s progress, of course they do but, this competitiveness only further supports NAPLAN results being used for individual student tracking. To complain about NAPLAN and then choose a school based on results is hypocritical. There are far superior ways for selecting a school than basing it off the results of standardised tests. You can look here for my thoughts on that topic.
“I can’t believe the school wants me to pay/support/volunteer for the school fundraiser to boost money for school programs -this should be free”.
If you love the school your child goes to but choose to opt out of your child doing NAPLAN then you better opt in for helping your school fundraise. NAPLAN data results and funding are linked. If you are willing to go to bat to protect kids from NAPLAN then you should be prepared to take on the governments stance of how school funding is divided up and resources allocated. Case in point – we have a lovely primary school only a few suburbs away from us which is very publicly known to not support NAPLAN. In fact parents want this school for their child because of this ideology. However this school also throws the most BRILLIANT whole community fete to provide the shortfall in funding the school has because they do not choose to be part of the data rat race. A school boycott is going to impact on funding. The parents who don’t want students to do NAPLAN but then don’t understand the impact of that need to be informed.
“OMG our school did so badly in NAPLAN this year – our school must have the worst teachers”
NAPLAN is not a test of teacher competency. There are many factors which can influence student outcomes in standardised tests. I am a Special Ed teacher so NAPLAN says nothing about my teacher competency. However when parents use NAPLAN as a way of assessing teachers, and make it a competition “Mrs Jones is the teacher you want for your son because her class always scores high in NAPLAN” then the purpose of NAPLAN becomes further distorted. Teachers may be pressured to teach to the test rather than teaching using the preferred learning styles of students in the room. Let’s not jump on the teacher bashing bandwagon.
“My kids teacher spends so long teaching to the test. If it is meant to be a snapshot why do they do so many practice tests? They are spending time on this so it must be important”
I can assure you that teaching to a test is the ultimate in teaching boredom. Teachers are not trying to “teach to the test” but rather familiarise students with the testing process so that their students will not be disadvantaged. The answer questions in some parts of the test are multiple choice. Many younger students have never had to respond to multiple choice questions and do not understand how they are structured or can be tricky. Students may also be used to reading authentic texts – chapter book, picture books or magazines. NAPLAN uses reading booklets where they need to find the right passage of text for the questions. I have seen students answer questions incorrectly because they couldn’t find the right piece of text. No teacher wants to see their students struggle or experience frustration and so this is the motivation for practising tests.
“What does NAPLAN have to do with the HSC?”
Okay the situation for NSW students now is that students are being required to score a Band 8 for NAPLAN to be given their HSC. If your child does not reach Band 8 then they will be given more opportunities in Year 10 and 11 and even into 12 to demonstrate english language proficiency.
If your child does not score a Band 8 they will still be eligible for an ATAR and they will still be able to gain entry to university. If you choose for your child to not sit the Year 9 NAPLAN then they will do one of the alternative literacy online assessment tests. If your child has a disability and follows a Life Skills Program this will not apply.
There has been a lot of outrage towards this move as people feel it places a lot of pressure on Year 9 students and concerningly Band 8 has been chosen with no clear communication on why as a significant number of students – more than 50% did not achieve Band 8 last year in NAPLAN. The current government expectation is that only 1 in 4 students will achieve this in Year 9. So they have set up a standard with a 25% success rate. University professors have even expressed concerns that Year 9 students are being compared to Year 12.
Finally because I know there will be people asking me what I did with my own child I can tell you she sat the test. She sat the test because she was not stressed about it in any way and her school uses data effectively. If she was a child who did not test well, was stressed or anxious then I would opt her out without hesitation. I know my daughters school uses data effectively as simply one tool in a bag of many for planning at a Stage and Whole School level. I do not rely on NAPLAN data to inform me about who my daughter is as a learner. It is simply a single snapshot from a single day. Additionally and importantly my daughters school does not use NAPLAN results to brag about the school. They are not mentioned in promotional material rather student welfare is what the school prides itself on. If I was viewing NAPLAN data being misused and my child was a part of that, I would withdraw her.
Finally I do not support NAPLAN personally as I don’t believe it assists our children in becoming the 21st century learners they need to be. I also do not believe it aligns itself with the motive behind the new Australian Curriculum which at it’s heart is about innovation and differentiation. 21st century learners need to be able to rigorously critically analyse and evaluate content and I do not see this series of standardised tests contributing towards this learning outcome for our children. Standardised testing repeatedly brings little advantage to our children and has the ability to impact self-esteem well after NAPLAN has been finished for another year.