QTU President's comment: 8 August 2017

Has NAPLAN had its day?

The annual cycle of media frenzy over the sitting of tests under the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests (May), the release of NAPLAN results to students, parents and schools (August), and the posting of NAPLAN results to the MySchool website (December) – is a big part of the reality that NAPLAN is, and always has been, high stakes testing.

For the decade that we have been subject to NAPLAN, this cyclical public interest has revolved around eerily consistent practices, outcomes and debate.

  • Teachers and schools sacrifice quality curriculum and teaching time to focus their attention, and that of their students, on the preparation for the tests, the conduct of the tests, the aftermath of the tests and public scrutiny of the whole process.
  • NAPLAN results are improving continuously and yet there appears to be little evidence of change overall.
  • Results for students from the writing task are concerning: year after year.
  • Why have we spent more than a billion dollars over the decade testing students to find out exactly what teachers, parents and the students themselves already know?
  • We are told that parents want NAPLAN to inform their choice of schools, yet more and more parents are choosing to withdraw their children from the annual NAPLAN process.
  • Media outlets, and some federal politicians, engage in misguided publication of invalid and misleading league tables of NAPLAN results, despite universal condemnation of the practice.

The QTU has been a consistent critic of the NAPLAN process and the public money wasted on conducting this whole highly questionable exercise. Internationally, even the most strident advocates for standardised testing have gone cold on the idea and have begun to debate the future direction of accountability in school education.

This week’s release of NAPLAN results has revealed that change is afoot in Australia as well. For the first time, the national conversation has turned to the question of why we have NAPLAN at all and why it needs to be a $120 million annual exercise of testing all students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. We are no longer a lone voice.

To further explore just one important development, the notion of sample testing, we must begin to address the valid concern that the cost, inconvenience and ongoing trauma for students of the current census method of NAPLAN testing is no longer justified – indeed it probably never was. International standardised tests are validly conducted with statistically significant groups of students of a particular age to produce a real measure of the performance of systems.

Sample testing does not allow school performance or student performance to enter the discussion, because it is only a representative sample of students that complete the test. Students are randomly selected to ensure integrity in results and individual student results are never released. If the political decision makers determine that we must continue to spend public money on informing them of what parents, teachers and principals already know, then we must take the opportunity to at least eliminate the annual cycle of invalid data use and comparisons.

The public interest in NAPLAN will wane rapidly if the best anyone can say is that minor differences exist between the performance of the majority of states and territories and that a rank order of the kind published year on year has about as much meaning to most of us as the statistical chance of winning the lottery. Lifting outcomes for all systems is about ensuring that the educational disadvantage that many children experience is eliminated by the judicious application of additional funding. It is this that we must now be campaigning for.

Kevin Bates