QTU President's comment: 3 August 2016

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NAPLAN outcomes 2016

The annual release of results from the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is once again upon us, and the debate regarding the value of the whole process will be revisited in something reminiscent of a scene from “groundhog day”.

Despite all of the misgivings about NAPLAN outlined below, it must be acknowledged that Queensland has demonstrated a dramatic improvement in most areas of the NAPLAN tests since their inception in 2008. Year 3 students’ notable performances in three of the five test areas in 2016 are the consequence of ongoing hard work by students and teachers, supported by families and the school community as a whole. They deserve our support and congratulations.

Major media attention will no doubt focus on the national results and which states beat which other states for the top positions, and once again teachers will be left asking why we need to spend more than $100 million a year to generate data which is of questionable benefit for students. Some unreformed local media outlets will publish league tables of schools’ “performance” in the NAPLAN tests, an inappropriate use of the data, fraught with inherent errors and negative consequences.

Many things haven’t changed. NAPLAN is still just a point-in-time test that may provide some broad indication of how an education system is performing on the five general areas tested. The NAPLAN test data will be misused by public commentators, media outlets and governments to do things that it was never intended to do. NAPLAN was never intended to provide results that are valid for individual students or class groups of students or valid measures of teacher or school performance. Comparative rankings reflect artificially exaggerated and meaningless differences between states, with many rankings separated by tenths of a single percentage point – in statistical terms no difference at all. Attempts by some jurisdictions to belatedly wind back the high stakes nature of the NAPLAN tests, after years spent ramping up pressure on students, teachers and schools, are having little effect.

In truth, the nature of the NAPLAN tests is tainted by a gross imbalance between the cost of the tests and the value generated from the outcomes. Many teachers and principals would prefer that the money tied up in the cost to deliver the tests was instead invested in the needs of students, such as students with disability, who could desperately use the additional resources promised by the federal Coalition government in 2013 and not yet delivered.

Some things are set to change. From 2017, Australia will begin a process that may eventually result in the administration of the NAPLAN tests online. It must be understood that no other nation on Earth has attempted to apply a national testing regime, in a census mode (testing every child at a particular year level or age) using adaptive testing (each test is different depending on how an individual student answers each question). What’s more, Australia’s public and school information technology infrastructure is widely considered to be insufficient to cope with the hundreds of thousands of students all attempting to complete the test on a computer or device at around the same time over a two week period. On top of this, the proposal currently being debated is that all students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 will also complete the writing task on a computer or device, and that the resulting written work will then be marked by a computer, with the potential of never being seen by another human being.

Teachers, principals and parents have a right to be concerned. For parents, this has resulted in increasing numbers of decisions being taken to withdraw students from the NAPLAN test. Overseas experience confirms that this trend often marks the beginning of a significant decline in public support for the testing regime. Indeed, the New York model being used in Australia is on the verge of total collapse in that US state, following a massive community campaign in opposition due to the widely held view that the tests there were doing more harm than good. Whether or not this happens in Australia, only time will tell. In the meantime, we will just get on with the work of education and learning.

Kevin Bates
President