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Beyond NAPLAN

By Sam Di Sano on 2 May 2018NSWstaffroomStrategy

On a national front we are pretty much flat lining when it comes to literacy and numeracy NAPLAN results (apart from a couple of exceptions)- no better than a decade ago. One of the problems with the measurement of our educational outcomes however, is that the discussion tends to revert back to how flawed an instrument NAPLAN may or may not be, without looking at any other issues.

Our obsession with NAPLAN seems to be out of control, so much so that it often masks the fact that the Australian education and schooling system is actually one of the best in the world. It should not be news to us. PISA - the program for international student assessment says the same thing: our education system is highly regarded and doing well at the top level.

Conversely, there is indeed a serious issue with the gap between top and bottom level performance, but improvement is often foiled because the issue is so politically and ideologically driven.

When it comes to education we have high societal expectations and opinions. Pretty much anyone who has ever gone to school or has children at one feels entitled to have an opinion, but we have a very narrow bandwidth when it comes to measurements of success: literacy and numeracy skills and scores seem to be it.

The detractors of NAPLAN are many in number. The NSW Teachers Federation is fairly vitriolic in its criticism, calling NAPLAN “unsophisticated, expensive and imprecise”, designed to exploit parental fears.

So, what is the answer?

The answer isn’t to throw the baby out with the bathwater and get rid of NAPLAN, but it does need a re-think given the amount of bad press it regularly receives. The flaws are in its current form and the manner in which it is used.

What NAPLAN can show us?

NAPLAN can show schools where to target their teaching outcomes to bring about improvement.

I have my doubts that NAPLAN is as useful for teachers as it may be for governments in its present form. I question whether teachers can actually direct or plan their day to day programming given the two year gaps in testing between Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 or identify students who require additional support in any continuum given how late the results actually come out after the event. A little tweak may fix that.

Nonetheless the results published annually have fostered a belief that Australian education is failing our children simply because the measurements in literacy and numeracy have effectively stalled. We have to present the data in a more meaningful and positive way than just a comparative analysis between schools.

Having a school system which allows teachers to differentiate learning for specific needs is really important. NAPLAN indicates that our top kids are doing really well but the rest are not and this is where the information from NAPLAN is really useful when fed back to schools.

NAPLAN in the hands of government

NAPLAN is no doubt a very useful policy tool for government to direct resources and funding according to the needs and gaps that annual results indicate. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) says NAPLAN is like a national report card identifying pockets of good practice.

NAPLAN confirms that we have huge equity issues in education (as if we didn’t already know that), particularly with indigenous attendance, retention and matriculation. We can actually paint the same picture of all rural and remote areas, indigenous and non-indigenous. Our Year 9 indigenous students are comparable to Year 5 non-indigenous. In some remote areas, those comparisons fare worse than Year 3 non-indigenous students. At least NAPLAN helps us to identify that.

The question is more about resourcing, funding and targeting to communities which need it most and NAPLAN gives us the tools to recognise these communities.

Addressing inequality

To address inequality we need to ensure funding is allocated appropriately and spent well. Literacy and numeracy are the foundational elements of our education system and the keystone to any society. Improvement can occur if resources are appropriately directed. That has certainly been the case in other nations.

Since 2008 regional and remote indigenous communities have actually made significant improvements. NAPLAN does show some of those good news stories too, but they are often lost in the scramble for league table type results that parents seek when considering schools for their children and the media seems to prefer those stories over the former.

What can we and should we be assessing?

It is a pity we haven’t done more with the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians published in December 2008: (goal 1) that Australian schooling promote equity and excellence and (goal 2) all young Australians become: successful learners; confident and creative individuals; active and informed citizens. These are skills that we should have developed to take us both economically and educationally into the future but sadly we do not have any measurement tools for assessment at a national level with any of these.

So - the answer is not to end NAPLAN but to allow both teachers and government to utilise it for what it was designed:

  1. To invest much more of the local data in the hands of teachers much earlier so they can actually target their teaching to student learning, particularly in the broader areas of reading, writing, maths, science and languages.
  2. Addressing the resourcing issue and the challenges faced in each sector, whether it be indigenous, non-indigenous, rural, regional, remote or metropolitan.

It is ultimately about putting tools in the hands of teachers and teachers knowing best what students need.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on NAPLAN so be sure to get in touch to have a chat. 😊


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