Why do we keep doing NAPLAN?

25 June 2019

NAPLAN: “why do we keep doing it when there are all these other unintended consequences?” (Gonski Institute)

It’s becoming fashionable to criticize NAPLAN. I was recently in a meeting where the prominent principal of a prestigious local independent school was ventilating over how bad NAPLAN is as a way of meaningfully assessing individual student progress. She spoke of how a test designed to measure individual progress is now misused to compare schools and has spawned a coaching industry that seriously skews the results for particular schools. 

Where was she in 2008? That was when the national testing regime was introduced by the then Labor Minister of Education Julia Gillard as a sure way to improve Australian education. The evidence is now clear that it hasn’t. 

At Glenaeon in 2008 we felt very alone in pointing out the inappropriateness of such a high stakes national testing regime, and questioning the educational benefit of testing primary school age children in particular with such a blunt instrument. Now we don’t feel at all alone. Every year since then, more and more voices have called for a serious review or abolition of NAPLAN, even reaching to two recent Ministers of Education in NSW. 

Here are two recent Sydney Morning Herald articles that provide commentary from some distinguished educators: 

NAPLAN “on its last legs”: March 10, 2019 SMH

Tests such as NAPLAN are on their "last legs" around the world, as overseas school systems opt for new assessments that avoid stressing students or stifling learning, according to an internationally renowned education expert.

Boston College Professor Andy Hargreaves said NAPLAN was modelled on tests developed in the 1990s, and countries such as Canada, Israel and Scotland were now acknowledging their unintended impact on students' wellbeing and learning.

"[They include] students' anxiety, teaching for the test, narrowing of the curriculum and teachers avoiding innovation in the years when the tests were conducted," said Professor Hargreaves, who is in Sydney to discuss alternatives to NAPLAN at a Gonski Institute forum this week.

"More and more countries are waking up to the weight of evidence. The age of high stakes testing with punitive consequences for accountability is on its last legs."

NAPLAN, a nationwide literacy and numeracy test given to years 3, 5, 7, and 9, was designed to help schools identify the students who were falling behind, and to help education systems identify the struggling schools.

But NAPLAN is conducted on such a large scale – it is a census of every student across several subjects and several year groups – that results took months, and were delivered too late to be useful, said Professor Hargreaves.

Other countries are abandoning NAPLAN-style test and implementing new ways to achieve the dual goal of assessing students at the same time as the system. "People are striving to find way to know where the system is going, and not having any negative consequences of the way the large scale [test is conducted]," he said.

Singapore has stopped conducting any large-scale testing on children younger than 11 and a review in the Canadian province of Ontario has proposed a similar move.

Finland tests sample groups of students rather than the whole cohort. Israel tests one subject a year on three-year cycles.

In Scotland, the emphasis is on teachers' professional judgment. The national assessments are used to inform that judgment along with other teacher-selected and designed assessments.

"Australia has to find the answer for Australia, and the answer will not lie in copying another system," said Professor Hargreaves.

The states must participate in NAPLAN as a condition of federal funding, but many want it replaced.

NSW is among them. Last year, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes called for it to be replaced, saying NAPLAN was being dishonestly used as a school rating system and had sprouted an industry that extorts money from desperate families.

Reform NAPLAN Says Gonski Institute: SMH

In its submission to a federal review, the Gonski Institute for Education said the reform was needed because NAPLAN had failed to lift school performance and created more problems than benefits. "Has it actually led to school or student improvement?" said director Adrian Piccoli. "The answer is no."

The Gonski Institute's submission said NAPLAN in its present form was used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of both individual students and entire school systems, which was a "problematic, if not impossible" expectation for a single test.

Instead of trying to do both, the National Assessment Program should focus on monitoring systems' performance by randomly sampling different groups of students, rather than testing every child across years 3, 5, 7 and 9, it said.

Pressure on teachers and students would ease, and there would be an end to unintended consequences such as teaching to the test, said senior members of the influential institute.

"[Sampling] allows you to then do not just literacy and numeracy," said Professor Piccoli, a former NSW education minister. "You can sample-test science, wellbeing - lots of different things, similar to PISA [the Programme for International Student Assessment, which also uses sample testing]".

Under the Gonski Institute's proposal there would be no school-by-school comparisons, so there would be no performance data to publish on My School, although the website could still publish other data. Individual performance would be monitored by in-class tests such as the Progressive Achievement (PAT) Test.

Professor Piccoli said NAPLAN's benefits were outweighed by the negative effects. "On the international tests we've gone backwards, on NAPLAN we've plateaued at best, so why do we keep doing it when there are all these other unintended consequences?" he said.