NAPLAN writers have trouble writing a writing test

I almost feel sorry for the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. They’re the folk who manage the NAPLAN tests that are supposed to tell us if our Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 students meet minimum standards for numeracy, literacy and writing, but they seem to have trouble meeting the standards themselves. Last year, they had to shred the personalised results for the entire country because they couldn’t do the maths to calculate an average, and this year they’ve produced a writing test that even they think was poorly written.

This year’s test was a trickster. In past years, ACARA advised schools ahead of time what sort of writing would be tested but this year they kept it secret. There have only been two kinds of writing anyway, narrative and persuasive, and it’s been persuasive since 2011. No surprise, this year was persuasive too. The question took 177 words to ask students to choose a rule or law they think needs to change and then make an argument to change it. 

The results showed an increase in the percentage of students failing to meet the minimum standards, but rather than this meaning anything, ACARA has said that perhaps the task was too complex, especially for Year 3. They cite an increase in zero scores – think of an 8-year-old sitting in a room for 40 minutes with no idea what he’s supposed to do and then handing in a blank piece of paper and you get the picture – although the increase in zero scores is actually very small in Queensland. Not only that, the percentage increase in students failing to meet ACARA’s minimum standards is much higher in Year 9 than Year 3. It’s harder to picture a 14-year-old who doesn’t know how to argue about rules.

Writing a writing task is not the only writing ACARA’s having trouble with. The minimum standards themselves needed a little editing frankly. To meet the standards, our 8-year-old “...may include a few examples of precise, topic specific words and produce some correctly formed sentences students use some capital letters and full stops correctly.” Subject object verb, I want to say softly, unless of course you’re James Joyce and it’s stream of consciousness, but so far stream of consciousness, along with poetry, memoir, essay, journalism and the many other ways we humans express ourselves, hasn’t been included in the NAPLAN writing test. Imagine the minimum standards for Joyce. Write words mostly, in sentences occasionally. 

This year the ACARA CEO decided to write an open letter to parents for some reason, encouraging them to remind children that “NAPLAN isn’t a pass or fail test,” unless of course they’ve applied to one of the schools that uses NAPLAN as a pass or fail test. Or unless you’re that 8-year-old, who I can’t stop thinking about. Maybe he was one of the ones who threw up on the morning of the test. How would he have felt afterwards, and last month, when he learned he’s far below the minimum standard? If ACARA is correct, and they authored a test that falsely left more students outside their safety net than needed, well, they did harm and maybe I won’t feel sorry for them. Incidentally, the percentage of parents who withdraw their children from NAPLAN is increasing. The ACT, where NAPLAN should be king, is in the lead, with Queensland now in second place.

As a novelist, I should be grateful ACARA has focused on persuasive writing, as all that seems to damage is our innate capacity for advertising copywriting. I hate to think what teaching to a narrative writing test might look like, for which, apparently, you need “a beginning and a complication” with a conclusion that “may be weak or simple” and “not all words used successfully.” 

As for the glory that is actual writing, I’ve been working with my son’s class this year alongside other parents and a wonderful teacher. The students are producing a collection of their work – if you know a kindly printer willing to sponsor them, get in touch. Most are writing stories, a couple are poets, there’s a graphic novelist, a budding journalist. Their creativity burns so brightly that even NAPLAN hasn’t managed to extinguish it.

Based on a column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend  on 6 September 2014. Mary-Rose writes about writing, education 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.