Dump NAPLAN stress: here’s a better way to do our national literacy and numeracy testing

By Rachel Wilson

We need to reform our national assessment program as a matter of urgency. Anyone who has stepped into a school in the lead up to NAPLAN knows the high stakes culture that has evolved around it. This happens often despite efforts by principals to keep it low key and efforts by teachers to protect their students from the stress involved.

The announcement by the Coalition that, if it wins the election, it will extend the national assessment program to our very young school children in Year 1 makes me believe change is now imperative.

I am not arguing against national assessment programs, I am saying there is a better way.

I am proposing what educators call ‘a softer touch’. We can still test our children but we can do it in a way that does not cause stress to children, teachers or schools. We use the technology available to us and dump the costly and stressful exam style regime currently imposed on our children and schools.

Here’s how the ‘softer touch’ would work

  1. Create a national question bank

An item, or question, bank can be developed from old assessments (NAPLAN and their predecessors like Basic Skills Tests); these questions are well understood and map neatly onto the Australian Curriculum and the standards expected for children at different stages of learning. The bank could grow with appropriately developed new questions.

  1. Teachers log in and generate their own tests

As teachers cover curriculum and become satisfied that their students have covered topic areas, they can log into the national system and generate a test at an appropriate level of difficulty for their students. The test can be printed or completed online.

  1. Tests are done at random times

The students complete the test; the teacher marks their papers then enters marks online and retains the paper copies for accountability purposes.

  1. Results are recorded immediately and used by the teacher

The marks entered online are immediately referenced to the national standards and the teacher receives a performance “dashboard” reading, showing each student’s performance against the national standards – and more importantly showing where there is still room for improvement.

Two Key advantages to the ‘softer touch’ approach

It conducts the assessment in a comfortable environment that can be seamlessly integrated into students’ lessons.

Thus the system is not merely for assessment, but it is also helpful for learning. By removing test anxiety and other “performance factors” this approach has greater assessment validity. It can produce a truer measure of students’ abilities. By delivering the assessment within lessons, students can develop a conception of assessment that is linked to learning. They come to understand that after an assessment it is very helpful to review what you have learnt and pursue the answers to questions you got wrong.

Alternative and ‘softer touch’ systems gives responsibility to teachers

There is evidence that since the introduction of NAPLAN teachers have shied away from their own classroom assessment. This is an important part of teacher professionalism and evident in highly capable teachers.

Quality classroom assessment has higher validity than external assessment because classroom assessment can draw upon the relationship the teacher has with students.

Classroom assessment can be strongly integrated with the recent and future learning of the students. It serves to provide the teacher with an intimate and timely account of how they are going in teaching and is therefore extremely powerful in professional effectiveness.

Softer touch’ assessment is being used in other countries

The ‘softer touch’ has been done successfully in other countries. For example, in New Zealand teachers use e-asttle technology to assess students against national standards on a regular basis in normal class time – as opposed to NAPLAN’s approach, which presents national assessment as a high-stakes, high-pressure, exam experience for students.

High stakes testing is last century and damaging for children

We know from research that high-stakes tests can have detrimental effects and we also know that high levels of stress in young children can have negative effects upon their approach to learning and, more broadly, upon their development in general.

In today’s world NAPLAN is yet another source of stress for young children. For a small number of children NAPLAN may add to a range of stressors and contribute to unhealthy levels of anxiety. For others a negative NAPLAN experience may have the simple and direct effect of putting them off school. Certainly, given our technological capabilities, it is an unnecessary stress that harks back to early twentieth century schooling.

Current plans are not enough

The current plans to shift NAPLAN to adaptive online tests, that are computer-based tests that adjust to students’ ability, do not address this issues I have outlined here. They do not return responsibility for assessment to teachers; they do not counter the anxiety-producing culture.

We need to diffuse the pressure on students to perform, avoid detrimental effects and achieve more valid measures of what students are capable of.

The only way we can do this is to empower teachers. Australian teachers should now schedule and deliver their own tests, or parts of the tests, in a supportive and low-key way throughout the school year.


Rachel Wilson


Rachel Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Research Methodology, Educational Assessment & Evaluation. As such she has broad interests across educational evidence, policy and practice. She has a particular interest in early childhood education and she has recently published a book on Emotional Development, co-authored with her father. She also has a particular interest in trends in educational participation and standards.

7 thoughts on “Dump NAPLAN stress: here’s a better way to do our national literacy and numeracy testing

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    Dear Rachel,
    I sincerely hope the politicians and policy makers who are responsible for NAPLAN read your piece. It makes good educational sense, is very persuasive.
    Brian Cambourne

  2. Pete Goss says:

    I agree that your ‘softer touch’ approach would be much more useful for teachers. But I don’t think they replace NAPLAN – we would lose much of our current ability to compare performance across schools, systems, regions, etc. Both are needed.

    My hope is that with better designed ‘softer touch’ assessment for learning, NAPLAN tests are much less stressful and fade into the background. This is what I have seen in schools that constantly using data to inform their teaching.

  3. Genie McGuire says:

    In response to “– we would lose much of our current ability to compare performance across schools, systems, regions, etc.”
    Did we compare performance across schools, systems, regions, etc. in the pre-NAPLAN era? If so, by what system was comparison effected?

    In terms of international comparisons afforded by large-scale tests, Australia’s performance rank has declined noticeably since the pre-NAPLAN era. The downward trend appears to be continuing, despite abundant NAPLAN performance comparisons and schools using NAPLAN data to inform their teaching.

    Could it be that schools and classroom teachers are focusing on NAPLAN-standards and NAPLAN-type questions at the expense of the curriculum and teaching methods deployed in the pre-NAPLAN era?

    NAPLAN-like regimes create and sustain wash-back.

  4. Peter o'brien says:

    Totally agree. We only have to look at America to see what high stakes testing has done to a whole generation of children. Unfortunately, I fear we are headed down the same path

  5. Genie McGuire says:

    Absolutely true. Twenty years ago, when Australia was ranked highly for its education, and the US was at the other end, my mantra was: ‘Australia is ahead of the US only because we are behind them.’
    Those who held the reins failed to observe clear warning signs and directed our education system down the American pathway. More recently (2014-15) Stanford Prof. Darling-Hammond has begged us to stop the folly and salvage what remains. With an entire K-12 cohort passed through and the tripling of non-maths HSC candidates since 2001, restoring Australia’s position is a complex and challenging imperative.

  6. Bruce Lyons says:

    Rachel what you propose sounds promising. I worry that teachers are insufficiently trained in student assessment processes especially in understanding the concepts of ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’. However if the test items are prepared by specialists in assessment then maybe my concern is ill-founded.

    I like your commitment to the testing being done as part of the normal flow of the classroom. It should enable teachers to keep the whole child in focus. Student wellbeing is a bit of a buzz word but in my view is the #1 criterion of school effectiveness. Conservative and labor pollies don’t seem to get this.

    I am now retired but having been a school principal I am aware of the importance of the principal being on top of the student performance data that is available in the their school. In these times of the move for government schools to become independent, principals are becoming busier with administrative work and I hope this is not detracting from their key role as educational leaders in their schools.

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