Angelique Howell

NAPLAN testing begins for 2018 and here’s what our children think about it

Australia’s national literacy and numeracy testing program, NAPLAN, for 2018 begins today, on Tuesday 15th May. Classrooms have been stripped of all literacy and numeracy charts and posters, and chairs and tables set out for testing. Our news feeds will be full of adults talking about the program, especially what they think is going wrong with it.

I am much more interested in what children think about NAPLAN.

I know from my research that many children do not like the tests and it is not because ‘not many children like taking tests at any time’ as the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which oversees the program, has told us.

Sitting tests is just one form of assessment and as such is a normal part of the rhythms and patterns of everyday school life: children go to school and now and then the type of assessment they do is a test.

But to claim NAPLAN is just another test is a simplistic adult perspective. Some children see it very differently.

I asked the children about assessments at school

I asked 105 children in Years 3, 5 and 7, as well as their parents, teachers and principals, about their experiences and views of NAPLAN. While they cannot speak for every child, their accounts give us insights into how children actually experience the tests.

When I spoke to the Year 7 children about which type of assessment they prefer, some favoured assignments, while others explained that ‘I prefer tests because if I get something wrong, I can see where I’ve gone wrong easier’, and ‘if I get a lot wrong it’s easier to talk to the teacher about it’.

So, what is it about NAPLAN that makes it such a negative experience for some children, even for those who normally prefer tests as a form of assessment?

I have written previously about why some children construct NAPLAN as high-stakes, even though it has been designed to be a low-stakes test. However, there are other major differences between NAPLAN and the usual type of school-based tests. There are big differences in the test papers as well the testing protocols, or conditions, under which the tests are taken.

The NAPLAN test papers

NAPLAN’s distinctive format causes confusion for some children which leads to mistakes that are unrelated to the skills being tested. For example, when colouring the bubbles related to gender, one Year 3 girl in my study mistakenly coloured the bubble marked ‘boy’.

Level of difficulty

While some children described NAPLAN as ‘easy’, with some equating ‘easy’ with ‘boring’, others found it difficult; with one Year 3 child saying, ‘People should think if children can do it’. For some children, especially in Year 3, this related to unfamiliar vocabulary, which was clear in their questions, ‘What is roasted?’, ‘what is a journal?’, and ‘what does extract mean?’ during practice tests. Others, particularly in Year 7, found the test difficult because the content was unfamiliar: ‘I got annoyed with some of the questions because I hadn’t heard it before’ and ‘some parts of the maths we had not learned about’.


Some children do prefer tests to other types of assessment, as I mentioned before, because they find it easier to talk through their answers with their teachers. However, NAPLAN results are simply indicated by a dot positioned within reported bands for their year level, with no substantive feedback. And the results arrive far too late, months after the testing, to be of use anyway.

The testing conditions

NAPLAN does not only involve the tests themselves, but the conditions under which the children take them. In addition to the change in the teachers’ role from a mentor, or helper, to a supervisor who reads scripted directions, NAPLAN’s testing protocols produce a very different classroom atmosphere to that which would be usual for a class or group test – particularly in primary school.


During NAPLAN, the room must be stripped of all displays and stimulus, and the students must sit in isolation so that they cannot talk with other students or see their work. Only the Year 7 children had experience in taking similar extended tests, which raises the issue of NAPLAN’s suitability for younger children. For the children in my study, this isolation was not usually a part of taking school-based tests; they simply completed their tests at their desks which stayed in the usual classroom configuration.


The Year 7 children were also encouraged to read a novel or continue with an assignment when they were finished school-based tests, to give all children enough time to finish. This is a sharp contrast to NAPLAN’s strict testing protocols, where such behavior would be seen as cheating.

Other children found NAPLAN difficult because of insufficient time: ‘I hate being rushed by the clock. When I am being rushed I feel like … I will run out of time which makes it super hard to get it done’ (Year 7 child), and ‘I felt a little worried because I didn’t get a few questions and there wasn’t much time left, so I didn’t know if I was going to do them all’ (Year 3 child).

Test preparation: The spillover from the testing week to everyday school life

These differences between NAPLAN and everyday school life, including school-based tests, mean that many teachers consider test preparation necessary. While most of these teachers did not agree with test preparation, they felt they had little choice, as ‘the kids need to be drilled on how the questions are going to be presented and to fill in the bubbles and all the jargon that goes with that’, and ‘to give them the best chance, to be fair to them’. As a result, the negative effects of the testing week spilled over into everyday school life in the months leading up to the tests; albeit to varying degrees within the different classrooms.

The daily ‘classroom talk’ which helped the children to clarify and refine their understandings was conspicuously absent. The students’ learning context shifted from tasks requiring higher order thinking skills, such as measuring the lengths and angles of shadows at different times during the day; pretending to be reporters to research the history of the local community; or developing and proposing a bill for the Year 7 Parliament; to isolated test practice which included colouring bubbles, ‘because if you don’t do it properly they won’t mark it’.

Some children found this shift frustrating, which affected student-teacher relationships, with some Year 7 children reporting that ‘[she gets] more cranky’ and ‘[he is] more intense’ as NAPLAN approached. For children with psychological disabilities, this shift was particularly difficult; with outbursts and ‘meltdowns’ resulting in negative consequences that deepened their alienation from their teacher and peers.

NAPLAN goes against everything we try to do in class

The separated desks and stripped walls not only make the classroom look different, but feel alien in comparison to the children’s everyday school life. This was reflected in some students’ reports that ‘It’s scary having all our desks split up and our teacher reading from a script and giving us a strict time limit’. This was supported by one of the teachers:

NAPLAN goes against everything we try to do in class. You’re getting the kids to talk to each other and learn from each other, and learn from their peers and challenge their peers, and yet they’ve got to sit on their own, isolated for such a period of time. It’s not even a real-life scenario.

ACARA maintains that the primary purpose of NAPLAN is to ‘identify whether all students have the literacy and numeracy skills and knowledge to provide the critical foundation for other learning and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community’ (ACARA, 2013). Further, that the testing environment must be tightly controlled to ensure that the tests are fair.

However, the issues I found in my research raise critical questions regarding NAPLAN’s ability to achieve the government’s primary goals of: (1) promoting equity and excellence in Australian schools; and (2) for all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active, informed citizen; as outlined in the Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians.

Many Year 7 students in my study reported that NAPLAN was a waste of time that hindered their learning; with some children reporting that as a result, they had disengaged from the test and any associated preparation. This raises significant questions about the extent to which NAPLAN can do the job it was designed to do.

As we embark on another year of NAPLAN testing, it is time to rethink the test, and this requires authentic conversations with, rather than about, students and their teachers.


Dr Angelique Howell is a casual academic at The University of Queensland. She is working on several research projects relating to students’ engagement in meaningful learning and exploring how young people, schools and communities can work together to enhance student engagement. An experienced primary teacher, her research interests include social justice; counting children and young people in, together with the other stakeholders in educational research; and apprenticing students as co-researchers.


This is what primary school children think about NAPLAN

There are no obvious consequences for poor National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) performance by individual children. So the notion that children should not be too stressed about doing the tests is not uncommon. However, as I see it, the idea that NAPLAN is a low-stakes test is an adult idea. It imposes an adult perspective on children’s experiences.

Children’s perceptions of what constitutes a consequence of poor test performance may differ to those of adults. This led me to focus my PhD study on exploring how Australia’s National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is experienced by primary school-aged children, with a particular focus on the children’s own reports of their experiences.

My research shows that NAPLAN can be very high-stakes indeed for some children.

What is high-stakes testing, and why does it matter?

Whether tests are defined as high or low-stakes depends on the consequences attached to the scores. While low-stakes tests simply provide information for children, their families and teachers, high-stakes tests have significant consequences for poor test performance. These include holding students back a year or firing teachers whose classes do not achieve set targets.

Supporters of high-stakes tests argue that having consequences attached to test scores motivates otherwise lazy teachers and/or students to work harder and achieve better results. However, research has found that high-stakes testing has unintended consequences, including a negative impact on students.

Is NAPLAN a high-stakes test?

ACARA has consistently claimed that NAPLAN is a low-stakes test because the government does not use results to create league tables to ‘name and shame’ underperforming schools, control grade promotion or close underperforming schools. It is therefore assumed that children will experience the test as low-stakes.

However, high-stakes uses of the data, such as the MySchool website, which at the end of the day represents green for ‘good’ schools and red for ‘bad’ schools, and the negotiation of rewards payments through National Partnerships are steering the test in a high-stakes direction.

Not all children describe NAPLAN as a negative experience, and not all children construct the test as high-stakes. For example:


Children’s constructions of NAPLAN as high-stakes

However, reports of children’s anxiety are common. For some children, this anxiety is mild, for example, ‘before NAPLAN I get little tingles in my stomach. But when I’m in the test the tingles in my stomach go away’.

For other children, this anxiety causes more intense physical responses like shaking:


It is often argued that anxiety is a normal part of taking any test – this does not make NAPLAN high-stakes for children. However, research has found that children experience greater anxiety about high-stakes tests than classroom tests. This suggests that some children’s anxiety around NAPLAN may be due to their constructions of the test as high-stakes.

Some children worry about score comparisons as they convey that, ‘I don’t want to be below the average’, or ‘I could be ranked low’, with some fearing that they could be judged as foolish:


Others believe that they will let their families down if they don’t do well. For example, ‘When I thought I was going to fail I thought it may mean I’m failing my family’.

A few children construct serious consequences of failing NAPLAN. Although ACARA has been clear in saying that NAPLAN is not a pass/fail test, some children tell me that ‘I don’t want to fail a subject’.

One Year 3 child I worked with believed that she would be held back a year:


Another told me, ‘when the NAPLAN week was coming up, I kept having ‘after NAPLAN’ dreams, like what would happen if I did really bad … in one of them, I was getting kicked out of the school, which made me feel quite anxious’.

For some children, poor NAPLAN scores mean a future of unemployment and poverty as they believe that, ‘you should try your best to do NAPLAN. Because then you could never ever get a job and get money and maybe couldn’t even get a house!’

Why do some children construct NAPLAN as high-stakes?

The 2010 Senate Inquiry into the Administration and Reporting of NAPLAN Testing found that the government’s poor communication about the purpose of the test has led to confusion, which is intensified by inconsistencies between claims that NAPLAN is a low-stakes test, and high-stakes uses of the data.

These inconsistencies filter down to the school level, with one parent telling me that, ‘they say it isn’t important, but they seem to go out of their way to say how the school performs against state or national averages – which says to me that they kind of do think it’s important but they don’t want to say so explicitly’.

Media narratives around NAPLAN

Research suggests that for some parents, the confusion around NAPLAN’s purpose and importance is resolved through three apparently ‘common-sense’ media narratives around MySchool.

The first of these is distrust, which is reflected in parents’ comments such as, ‘It’s not all about getting A’s and F’s, it’s just to see if your teachers are teaching you correctly’. Some parents also distrust teachers who minimise test preparation to adequately prepare their children for what they believe is a very important test. As a result, one teacher told me, ‘You just hear the talk about how they’ll get them ready – how THEY’LL get them ready’.

The second narrative of choice is seen in the belief of some parents that strong NAPLAN results are important for enrolling their children into their choice of ‘good’ private schools; even though these schools maintain that they ‘do not use NAPLAN results as an admission tool’.

Finally, the narrative of performance is reflected in some parents’ belief that it is important to ‘know how my children are positioned within the school, the state, the nation’. One parent also told me that, ‘If my children were not meeting the required standard, I would take action’; although it wasn’t clear what this action might be.

Lack of consistency leads to confusion

In this emotionally charged and confusing climate, in which some children are positioned within negative parent-teacher relationships as parents and teachers blame each other for children’s anxiety, the children receive little, if any, clear and consistent information about NAPLAN. This leaves children confused about why they do the test, with older children in particular asking, ‘What’s the point of NAPLAN?’


In the schools I have worked with, principals and teachers tended to limit conversations around NAPLAN to reduce the focus on the test and thus children’s anxiety.   However, this may unintentionally result in failing to provide children with adequate information about NAPLAN which only adds to their confusion.

What schools can do

Not all children experience NAPLAN in the same way, and not all children’s experiences of the test match what their parents and teachers, even policy makers, believe them to be. With a lack of evidence to the contrary, some children are constructing NAPLAN as high-stakes; with children’s understandings of what constitutes a consequence of poor test performance not necessarily aligning with adult definitions of high-stakes testing.

While schools cannot address issues within the wider community, they can provide children with unambiguous information about the purpose of NAPLAN, which is to ‘identify whether all students have the literacy and numeracy skills that provide the critical foundation for their learning’ (ACARA, 2013). This needs to be communicated to children in language they can understand, and in ways that do not focus excessively on NAPLAN as compared to school based assessments.

This recommendation is supported by research that suggests ‘in schools where tests were carefully explained, the children were more positive about them’. Children should also be provided with opportunities to ask questions about the test and its purpose, with an expectation that their questions will be taken seriously and answered accordingly.


Here is my PhD thesis Exploring Children’s Experiences of NAPLAN: Beyond the Cacophony of Adult Debate


headshot-photoDr Angelique Howell is a course coordinator in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, and is working on several research projects.  An experienced early childhood/ primary teacher, her research interests include social justice, with a particular focus on counting children and young people in, together with the other stakeholders, in educational research.  She recently published a book chapter entitled, ‘Exploring children’s lived experiences of NAPLAN’ in National Testing in Schools: An Australian Assessment, edited by Bob Lingard, Greg Thompson and Sam Sellar (Routledge, 2016).