Each year, students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are required to sit a test in literacy and numeracy. The test, known through the country as NAPLAN, for “National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy”, has always been controversial. From the time it was set up by the then Minister of Education, Julia Gillard, during the Rudd government (2007-2013), it has attracted criticism. At the same time, the MySchool website was set up, to show how all schools do - how kids in one school compare to other schools in terms of their skill levels. NAPLAN is a major source of data for MySchool.
The major criticisms are three.
Firstly, it distorts the curriculum. Teachers, not wanting to see their school reflected badly in the results, ‘teach to the NAPLAN’, or to put it another way, coach the children to do better. This undoubtedly does happen. However, as with all matters of (undue) emphasis, it’s a matter of how much is too much? Making sure kids can spell as well as possible, and know how to use the correct pronouns, is not really cruel and unnatural behaviour. Everything on the NAPLAN test is mandated for study.
Secondly, it makes some children anxious. This may be true. But it is a bit like going to the doctor to see if there is a problem. If a test points to the need for remediation, it is a good thing. Children can’t possibly ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ NAPLAN. It simply reports on their skill levels. A number of studies have looked at how much children worry about NAPLAN, but they have had difficulty drawing conclusions.
Finally, people say it hasn’t improved results. Blaise Joseph (Centre for Independent Studies) says this criticism is ‘illogical’. ‘A test cannot be blamed for a lack of improvement. This would be analogous to blaming a thermometer for a hot day or criticising scales for a lack of weight loss.’ (ABC News Breakfast 15 May 2018).
The principal benefit is knowing whether schools are achieving their objectives. Blaise Joseph again: ‘NAPLAN provides valuable data to show which students are falling behind … It provides transparency for school results and accountability for the more than $50 billion of taxpayer money going into schools every year.’
Julia Gillard, the one who introduced the scheme, had this to say about NAPLAN and the publication of results on the MySchool website:
"Many people, before they had this information, would have said to themselves private equals good, and public equals bad. … When we actually had the data set, what people worked out was a lot of state schools were outperforming expectations, going really well; and a lot of non-government schools – some of which parents were paying very high fees for – weren't going as well as their historic reputation would have led people to believe." (Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March 2017)
Some teachers are nervous about NAPLAN because it provides a ‘snapshot’ of how their children are performing against national benchmarks, and they worry that parents will draw conclusions without knowing the full story about the school.
But the scheme is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
In the spirit of making the NAPLAN easier, Ziptales has built its own ‘NAPLAN Style Tests’ module, which emulates the test, but provides instant diagnosis and feedback to teachers. This way, teachers can habituate children to the test, and find out how to improve their scores, in the comfort of their own classrooms.