NAPLAN: more about schools than students

May 16, 2014

So here we are, at the end of the week in May that fills children, teachers and parents with dread. It is the week in which students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are tested on their numeracy and literacy.

NAPLAN is the test for “skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy”. For some parents it is hard to miss this momentous week as more than likely your child has been preparing for it all year.

Its focus is to look at the child’s development over a period of time and not as a snapshot. But with the creation of the My School website we have seen NAPLAN morph into a high stakes test that has become more about the school than the student.

This shift in focus prompted Greens South Australian Senator Penny Wright to call for a national inquiry last year. In March this year the committee delivered its findings. While it was never recommended that NAPLAN testing cease, the inquiry did highlight the flaws in the system, most notably the lag between testing and the delivery of results.

Tests are set for the second full week of May each year, however results are delivered in September. This leaves teachers just one school term to examine results and develop strategies for improvement before the year ends and students move to another year level, and teacher.

A testing round earlier in the year, with a fast turnaround of results, would allow students and teachers to reap more benefits from the NAPLAN. Under the current model data collated from NAPLAN results can only really assess the school on its performance.

Many schools noted in their submissions to the inquiry that the high-risk nature of NAPLAN was demoralising teachers. It was also taking up valuable resources, with schools spending the first quarter of the year “teaching for the test”.

Then there is the growing pressure on parents to either allow your child to participate or act as a ‘conscientious objector’ and refuse. For those who do take the test they are encouraged to prepare for NAPLAN at home. This at-home cramming skews results as it no longer becomes about the knowledge and skills a child accumulates over a period of time, but what they have retained over a few months.

Many schools also told the inquiry that this dynamic was adding pressure, anxiety and stress to individual students.

Of course all these arguments are focusing on children whose first language is English. What about our Indigenous and migrant children from non-English speaking backgrounds?

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The senate inquiry took many submissions from schools with ESL (English as Second Language) students. They argued that the context for story analysis in the literacy tests did not accommodate any cultural understandings or words with multiple meanings. When the results of students are returned below par it leaves a feeling of disappointment among families who, under difficult circumstances, are working hard to ensure their child receives an education.

The inquiry recommended NAPLAN be more adaptive for students from non-English speaking backgrounds and those with a disability.

The government is yet to formally respond to the inquiry’s recommendations.

Listening to talk back radio you would think we are creating a generation of sooks who cannot handle a test and a bit of failure.

But what is important to remember here is that the NAPLAN – as it works at the moment – is not so much about students but the performance of a school, its teachers and our country’s education system as a whole.

Now that is a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone an eight-year-old.

Louise Pascale is an Adelaide journalist.

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