NAPLAN is the $100 000 000+ test that divides the nation. At this time every year for the past five or six years, I have made public statements in opposition to the mainstream view that NAPLAN is good for our kids.
I don’t get paid for this. In fact, it’s a significant distraction from my usual work. But I care deeply about the issue and I keep putting my hand up to raise my voice against something I think is wrong for our kids, our communities, our schools, and our future.
The past couple of days have been pretty intense on social media and in the mainstream media. I’ve been trolled, abused, and stalked. I’ve been praised, thanked, and lauded.
But what I’ve appreciated most is the thoughtful responses from parents who really, really care about their kids and who want to know what they should do in regard to NAPLAN.
So I want to try to set the record straight and provide clear, concise answers for those parents.
Before I do so, I need to acknowledge that no matter what I say, some people are going to hate me, try to point out flaws and inconsistencies, and want to argue. As I mentioned before, I don’t get paid for doing this, so if you want to do that, please understand that I have limited time for responses, and I do my best to respond only to those who have sincere and genuine questions. Even then, I may struggle. A book deadline is my primary focus – and the talks I deliver around the country.
So here goes. First, I’ll share the main objections I have to NAPLAN and why (in brief). Then I’ll respond to the various questions I’ve had as best as I can.
Why I’m opposed to NAPLAN
1. NAPLAN is, like most tests, all about ranking our children. And it’s also about ranking schools. But to me, education shouldn’t be about ranking or sorting, or creating hierarchies. It should be about teaching and learning, about building and growing, and about mastery and competence. Some testing and evaluation is required to assess learning. But testing and ranking on a national scale is unnecessary for reasons I’ll explain below.
2. NAPLAN, like many tests that rank, can create a damaging and unhealthy “fixed” mindset. This simply means that when kids get told they’re a “band 6” or “band 2” or even a “band 10”, they actually believe that it represents their smarts. And they live into that. If the score is good you might think that’s fine. But studies show it can create horrible pressure for the high achievers. And we already know that if a child believes she is dumb, it’s hard to convince her otherwise.
3. NAPLAN, like it or not, is a high-stakes test. Many schools (though most will deny it) use NAPLAN data to impress everyone with their academic credentials via MySchool website and other school guides. They use their NAPLAN scores in their marketing materials to help prospective paying clients know how great their school is. Sometimes teachers and parents get caught up in believing that the test scores matter too. This can lead to the following issue;
4. NAPLAN is associated with documented increases in stress and anxiety in children. It’s true that a lot of kids don’t give two hoots. But psychologists and parents report “NAPLAN belly” in May each year as kids worry about how they’ll do. Sometimes the pressure is self-created. But often it comes from parents and teachers who want their kids to do well.
5. NAPLAN has been responsible for schools “teaching to the test”, with practice time eating into precious opportunities for art, drama, science, and even LUNCH! My own children once attended a school where a decision was made to remove the school from a major inter-school production so more focus could be placed on NAPLAN. So rather than encouraging art, fun, creativity, and movement, the school emphasised colouring bubbles on an academic test.
6. NAPLAN’s reliability and validity has been called into question many times over the years. I raised this point and received a polite personal response from the head of the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority, Robert Randall.
7. NAPLAN is said to be a diagnostic tool. However, NAPLAN is literally worthless in this regard. The former head of ACARA, Peter Hill, admitted as much to a 2010 Senate References Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations when he stated that NAPLAN tests cannot be used as a diagnostic tool, in part due to the five-month time lag between the time the students take the test and the time the test results are delivered.
8. The Queensland Studies Authority state that this testing encourages “methods of teaching that promote shallow and superficial learning rather than deep conceptual understanding and the kinds of complex knowledge and skills needed in modern, information-based societies.” What this really means is that teachers are teaching less and less context and children simply learn a list of facts or formulas to get at the right answer as fast as possible. This approach misses the point of education. Yes, the answers are important. However, the process of acquiring the answer should enrich understanding and development.
9. Every year there are stories about schools requesting that children who are likely to achieve in the lower bands stay home so as not to impact the school’s reputation. What’s the point?
10. NAPLAN is a narrow measure of a handful of important, but not all-encompassing variables. While we may learn about a child’s academic performance, we learn nothing of school culture, student engagement, broader pursuits on offer, a child’s talents, creativity, resilience, or capacity for critical analysis. These skills and capacities are every bit as important as those tested by NAPLAN. To be fair, NAPLAN isn’t about testing those things, but that indicates part of a broader problem: it’s a narrow test that gives remarkably little information.
11. NAPLAN results can be guessed by knowing the average income of the people who live in the school’s catchment.
12. NAPLAN results are delivered so long after testing is complete that they are essentially meaningless for a parent or student or even a teacher. Kids develop and change substantially in the five months it takes to get results back.
13. It’s pretty safe to say that as far as rankings go, Australian kids haven’t really improved in any meaningful way since NAPLAN was introduced. In fact, we’ve gotten worse as standardised testing has become the typical way we push for improvement.
14. The countries that do education best are also the countries who avoid this kind of testing almost entirely! Finland is the obvious example. The USA is one of the biggest pushers of this type of testing and theirs has been a long downward spiral in education. But we are following the Yanks rather than the Fins. Why?
15. Lastly – for now – there’s a BIG, DIRTY SECRET about NAPLAN that most schools will deny, but I find such denials hard to accept. The secret is this: when the diagnosis comes in (that is, when tests arrive), few if any schools have the resources or time to comb through the data and identify which students really are struggling and then invest those resources into helping that student improve and grow.
There are other issues that concern me; teacher wellbeing, the headaches for principals, the fact that the test costs over $100 million that could be put to much better use in our nation’s schools, the commercial industry that has sprung up to take advantage of paranoid parents, and the pressure they place on kids… and son on. But that’s enough for now. These are the big-ticket issues.
What I do…
First, if I want to know how my children are going at school, I don’t wait for NAPLAN results. I ask the teacher. Most teachers are incredible humans. I believe there’s a special place reserved in heaven for all those diligent teachers who put up with 30 kids in their class every day all year, giving their all to help them and serve them. Teachers are incredible. And any teacher worth a fraction of their pay can tell you in half a second if your child is struggling. They’re professionals and they know how to help.
Second, as a result of these concerns, I withdraw my children from NAPLAN . This causes no issues, even though my kids usually do pretty well at school and tests don’t bother them.
Why would I withdraw them?
Lots of parents don’t like the idea of NAPLAN but they say they won’t withdraw their kids because they do fine on the tests. But it’s not about you and your kids. It’s about ALL of our kids. And for every one that does just fine, there are others who suffer, get sick, fail, experience pressure, and become more disengaged. This is about the big picture, and not just one child.
So I’m a big advocate of getting the kids away from the testing.
Now for the questions I’ve been asked online recently:
1. WA and NSW have made it compulsory for Yr 9 students to achieve at least Band 8 to qualify for an HSC. Surely our children have to do it now?
My response is that “no, they don’t.” The test does not need to be taken. There are other tests (without nearly the pressure or the ramifications) that are available to be taken during Yr 10 and 11 that will allow a child to participate in the HSC. Further to that, the HSC is not the be-all and end-all. For those who have university aspirations, there are so many pathways into the course of your dreams now it’s remarkable. The ATAR is almost meaningless except in the most competitive circumstances (and in those cases, Band 8 results are trivially easy). And many kids will be much happier with a trade or other form of employment and have no interest in tertiary studies anyway. We make too big a deal of testing – and at far too young an age.
2. Is it better to sit the alternative numeracy and literacy tests?
My answer is yes. For all of the reasons above.
3. What do I think about the International Baccalaureate?
I like it. I believe it assesses much more valuable skills in our children than the HSC, and I would encourage parents to see whether it might be an option as their children move towards higher education if that’s relevant. It’s becoming increasingly popular in private schools and increasingly available in various educational contexts.
4. Are kids better off without an HSC if they can still get an ATAR (which they can)?
That’s an issue for individuals to determine, but frankly, I don’t see it as a big deal.
5. How will your kids cope with tests that are compulsory when they finally arrive?
All kids experience pressure, tests, and challenges in life. Sitting a pointless test in Yr 3, 5, 7, and 9 is not going to be the difference in my children’s capacity to deal with testing in situations where it actually does count. Someone told me I’m raising spoonfed, cotton-wool kids. They need to harden up. But let’s be real about this for a minute. We don’t ask kids to drive a car at age seven, because they’re not ready. Similarly, these tests are inappropriate for the age of the child, and the results cast a long shadow throughout a child’s life. All kids will face hardship. They don’t need more of it just so they can get used to it for later. Later will come, and they’ll deal with it then. Until then, they’ll have many opportunities to learn and grow in safe ways.
6. If I withdraw my child, he/she may not be accepted into the high school we like.
Schools are not supposed to be asking for NAPLAN data… but they do. It’s a real risk and one I think is wrong on every level. How dare a school deny enrolment based on NAPLAN scores? My response, if asked, would be that NAPLAN scores are meant to be used in the aggregate and I don’t provide them. Of course, that may not wash with some school admissions officers so parents need to consider their options carefully in this instance – rightly or wrongly.
Ok… so there were many more questions, but this is already too long. If you’re still reading, I’m amazed!
I hope that my comments have answered your questions and resolved your concerns. For some, I may have just kicked the hive over. For others, perhaps it all makes sense now.
NAPLAN is here for a long time yet. But while it’s here, I’ll be arguing against it unless all of those issues I’ve outlined above can be resolved.
PS - There may be some things here that are idiosyncratic. Please don't argue with me about those. There's little that can be done. However, if I am grossly in error on any points, I welcome feedback. It's the trolling (and the kind correction) that improves and refines my thinking on any topic. When someone makes a valid point I either move in their direction or improve my thinking in the direction I'm heading... but it's a positive either way.