Are you familiar with the term ‘NAPLAN’?
It stands for the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy. It’s standardised academic testing for all Australian students in years three, five, seven and nine.
NAPLAN takes place every year in the month of May. This means that on three consecutive days, thousands of students will sit a one and a half hour test, assessing their reading, writing, spelling, grammar, punctuation and numeracy.
I’m not a fan of NAPLAN. In fact, many teachers aren’t. And the same can be said for hundreds of parents out there.
Here are the three key reasons why:
1. Stressed out Students
A great number of children are full of stress and anxiety in the lead up to NAPLAN. There may be too much pressure on them to do well. They may be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar testing environment. They may be a child with learning difficulties or Autism Spectrum Disorder, already pushed to the max on just a regular classroom day.
In an era where many children are feeling anxious, stressed out, overwhelmed or even suicidal, we need to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of each educational initiative. NAPLAN creates too much emotional fall out, for not enough gain.
2. Meaningless Data
The whole point of NAPLAN is to collect data. Data that plots where a child currently sits academically. Data that tracks individual progression over time. Data that compares two groups of students, those with different teachers or at different sites.
The limitations of the NAPLAN data are this:
The snapshot of the child’s learning, taken in May, isn’t available until October. By then, with the school year drawing to a close, educators already have a very clear idea of where their students are at. Five months of waiting dilutes the value of individual data.
There’s a limit to what knowledge or qualities can be measured in a formal written assessment. For example, NAPLAN can’t tell us how kind a student is, how well they make learning connections, the fact that they are a whizz on the computer or can speak in fluent Japanese. And to me, these are just as important as literacy and numeracy.
It simply tells us how well a child can take a test. A student may understand the concept being assessed, just not the wording of the question. Am I the only person that gets into a mental muddle as soon as I see a question like this? ‘Susan has 3 apples and Steven has 11. How many will they have by 3pm on Tuesday?’
3. Skewed Classroom Learning
NAPLAN is only intended as an isolated test on 3 days of the year. However, to boost performance, lots of classrooms are spending a significant chunk of time learning how to understand and answer questions in the correct format. And on top of that, many educators are prioritising content that will be more likely to be assessed in NAPLAN.
We are entering dangerous territory here. One where we’re teaching children how to become good at taking tests, rather than engaging them in meaningful lifelong learning. So rather than simply assessing the learning that’s already taking place, NAPLAN is beginning to have a significant influence on what takes place within the classroom walls.
How can we minimise the damage?
If you’re a parent with a child in year three, five, seven or nine, you can decide to say no to NAPLAN. Without action, your child will participate by default. However, saying no is a really simple process. Ask for an exemption form at your school’s front office and sign it. Done!
Take the Pressure Off
Take the pressure off our teachers, take it off our students. NAPLAN results do not determine the most worthy members of a school community.
As educators, let’s not teach to NAPLAN. Spend the first chunk of the year doing real learning. Begin talking about the upcoming assessment in term 2, with a week of lead in time. Prepare students for the logistics of the testing day, as well as how questions may be worded. That’s all that’s needed.
As parents, grandparents and teachers too, let’s empathise with how children are feeling about NAPLAN, if reluctant, worried, or anxious, rather than dismissing their valid feelings.
And lastly, we need to let go of the pressure that comes with wanting a certain outcome. Perhaps if we stop talking about NAPLAN results, if we stop pegging schools against each other, if we choose to simply see it as three unusual school days, NAPLAN won’t be so scary after all.
A podcast conversation with Protecting Childhood
NAPLAN is a topic I’ve spoken about on the Thriving Children Podcast, along with two executive members of the Protecting Childhood Organisation, Kathy Margolis and Jonathan Anstock. This conversation debunks the common arguments in support of this nationwide test. You can listen to that here.