NAPLAN not quite according to PLAN


“I’ve had enough of the NAP and enough of the PLAN.” So spoke a seven year old I met last week whose year three class is busy getting ready for NAPLAN – the National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy test – which will be taken by the vast majority of years three, five, seven and nine students in Australian schools next month. NAPLAN is supposed to tell us how we're tracking on the three Rs, but a study commissioned last year by the public policy research Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney shows that the test is having unintended outcomes. 

According to the study, carried out by academics from the University of Melbourne, teachers are reporting that students as young as my seven-year-old friend are throwing up on the morning of the test, because of anxiety. Anxiety schmangxiety, I hear you say. Bit of pressure’s good for kids.

Well, I thought I’d try NAPLAN for myself. Now I don’t want to brag but I owned reading comprehension at school; I was an SRA savant. So when I sat down with the Year 5 NAPLAN sample, I had a high level of confidence. I failed. Well, not exactly failed, but I didn’t know answers. Take the questions about Angus, who rides horses in the Mongolian Naadam festival. I couldn’t say whether Angus was inspired or nervous, perhaps both, although you could only pick one, let alone the story’s moral, which I failed to fathom, other than that Angus came from a family that could afford to fly him to Mongolia and back fairly regularly (possibly with a horse), again not one of the options.

A more worrying finding from the Whitlam Institute study is that teachers are telling us they’re narrowing what they teach. They’re teaching to the test. Teaching to a test is always of concern because a single test can’t cover all the things that education provides and important things can get left behind. Science, for instance, and the creative arts, history and geography, aren’t tested at all, and quite a lot of English and maths too. Lately, we've seen declining interest in science among school students. The solution, according to some, is to  NAPLAN science. But this will simply be another test that teachers will learn to teach to. You shouldn't teach to a test, but it’s inevitable if the test becomes high stakes as NAPLAN has. 


NAPLAN’s writing test is based on ‘persuasive’ writing, writing that tries to convince you of something. Persuasive writing was unheard of in primary school ten years ago, but now you’d think there was no other way we put pen to paper. What's worse, I saw some NAPLAN teaching materials that told kids to “make opinions look like facts.” I’m sorry. Opinions are not facts. They’re opinions and when we make them look like facts, there’s a name for it. Lying. It’s very important we draw the distinction from the get-go. Otherwise we’ll all end up as politicians.

The high-stakes nature of NAPLAN is the problem rather than the test itself. We are given to believe that the results are telling us, not whether Australia is on track with literacy and numeracy, but whether children, their teachers and their schools, are good, or not. This may not have been the intended outcome when ACARA, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority, decided to publish NAPLAN results by school, together with a comparison with other 'like' schools, but it's what has happened. Private schools use individual NAPLAN results - the report comparing your child with the average - in their selection processes, and comparative school results are widely published in the media. Since writing the first version of this piece, I've been told by one mother that her son has now been refused entry to a school, based on his average year 3 NAPLAN result! Another mother, whose daughter has developmental delays, is being encouraged to keep her daughter home on test day because "it might be too stressful."

ACARA claims the NAPLAN test provides an accurate measure of national minimum standards in literacy and numeracy. I don’t know if that’s true (or just persuasive writing) but the percentage of students at or above the standard has hardly changed in five years of testing. And if we do start to improve, it won't prove we're learning more. It will prove we're teaching better to a test. NAPLAN costs millions, and while I’m sure there are well-meaning educationalists in a room somewhere coming up with Mongolian horses, I’m not sure who they’re helping. The results come too late for individual kids, and if you were trying to help teachers teach better, you wouldn’t NAPLAN them. 


Finland, which is among the best performers in education in the world, doesn’t have a NAPLAN. Instead, they train, mentor and value their teachers, and they engage them in research. The University of Melbourne’s Professor John Hattie tells us teachers make most difference to educational outcomes. Any parent whose child has turned around to face the sun of learning because of a good teacher knows how true that is. It will be May, almost halfway through the school year, before kids like my seven-year-old friend will stop preparing for NAPLAN and start learning. Let’s just hope they’re resilient enough to hang in there until then.


I do a weekly column for The Courier-Mail Qweekend  and this piece grew from the 13 April 2013 column. I am writing about education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch,  tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!