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Does NAPLAN make the grade?

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They say whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over, similarly NAPLAN has been a source of contention since its beginning and now experts and politicians are calling for a thorough review of what NAPLAN is and what it’s for. 

Associate Professor Michael Nagel, an expert in human development and the psychology of learning at the University of the Sunshine Coast, says the review is a good start, but favours eliminating NAPLAN altogether. “The research around standardised testing [like NAPLAN], is pretty conclusive, in that standardised testing paradoxically leads to much lower standards,” he said.

“I think there’s three [major problems with NAPLAN]. The first is that standardised tests are limited in determining what a student actually knows or has learnt, so they don’t give us a real good understanding of what a student knows.

“The second thing is that they quickly become a high-stakes endeavour, making for a competitive environment, and they’re used to compare things that they shouldn’t be used to compare. You should never take a diagnostic tool, which is what NAPLAN’s meant to be, and use it to compare. And that’s what happens: we use it to compare students, to compare classrooms, schools – god forbid we start comparing teachers.

“The most worrying thing in my professional opinion is the sheer stress [NAPLAN] puts, not just on the students, primarily students, but also on teachers and parents. We should be looking to examine what the children know in ways that don’t create stomach pains and nausea; we have studies that tell us that NAPLAN does this to children.”

Associate Professor Nagel says that the best way to assess student outcomes is to get out of teachers’ way, and let them do it in cooperation with parents.

“In this country we have a tendency when things don’t look well to bag teachers. In Finland, in contrast, they have a tendency to [trust teachers] in what they do, and I think the more we would trust teachers, and allow them to make determinations about where kids are at, in conjunction with working with parents, the better off we would be, because no two kids are the same, and teachers are trained to look at what kids can do, what they can’t do, and help to move them along.”

Associate Professor Jihyun Lee is a statistician, educational psychologist and survey methodologist with international experience, based at UNSW Sydney. She researches large-scale student assessments such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and NAPLAN.

Associate Professor Lee said, “It’s common sense that any system should be reviewed after 10 years.

“While the NAPLAN program has focused on developing its technological aspects such as online and adaptive testing in recent years, there has not been a thorough and practical evaluation of the external validity of the program, i.e., its usefulness at the societal level and perspectives from various stake holders.

“At present we do not know how students really feel about the NAPLAN test. At the beginning of its induction, high levels of anxiety especially from younger students grabbed headlines in the education sections of the newspapers, which doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.”

“The public and academics in the related fields are also not sure about how teachers use the NAPLAN assessment results to inform individual students’ learning and whether teachers find add-on values of NAPLAN in addition to what they already know about their students.

“There is also a question at the national level, i.e., how much knowledge and information is gained for the public, educators, policy-makers, and academics about our students’ academic achievement? 

Professor Beryl Exley is the National President of ALEA, and Professor of English curriculum and literacy education at Griffith University. “I think it’s very timely that we have a review,” she said.

“We know that NAPLAN is an expensive exercise and we have good reason to be cautious when we see Government and media using that data in ways that it wasn't meant to be used. An example is when claims are made that NAPLAN results are a measure of teacher effectiveness or when a NAPLAN reading and writing result is a measure of a student's literacy capabilities."

"We also know that the NAPLAN era has produced collateral damage on narrowing the curriculum. For example, literacy has been reduced to the literal comprehension scores and a very elementary form of generic writing. We know NAPLAN is affecting pedagogical practice; students are experiencing the teaching of writing as having to learn two basic generic structures instead of writing as a creative craft that moves across multiple genres depending on audience, purpose and context. We know there are issues when a certain form of assessment is privileged over other forms of more authentic assessment that teachers, parents and children find useful.”

“A major ARC funded study showed that the NAPLAN juggernaut eroded principals’ time in schools, taking them away from other important roles. Unless we have a way of redressing that erosion of time on tasks that really matter, it’s difficult to say that we should continue to support NAPLAN in its current form.”

“National standardised assessment can be useful for providing a health-check on the education system per se, but it's not necessary to have census assessment for all students in years 3, 5, 7, & 9. A cross section assessment will provide enough data to provide a picture of what's happening in the system and to determine the impact of various initiatives in certain communities."

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