The dark side of NAPLAN: it’s not just a benign ‘snapshot’

By Don Carter

The release of the latest NAPLAN results this week identified a problem with student performance in writing. This prompted the federal minister for education, Simon Birmingham, to state these results “are of real concern”. And the CEO of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Robert Randall, added that “we’ll have a conversation with states and territories” to pinpoint the exact problem.

You get the message: there is a problem. As I see it we have a much bigger problem than the one the minister and ACARA are talking about.

At the moment, we have two concurrent and competing ‘systems’ of education operating in Australia, and particularly in NSW: one is the implementation of the state-authorised curriculum and the other, the regime of mass tests which includes NAPLAN and the Higher School Certificate.

The bigger problem

 NAPLAN results get everyone’s attention, not just mainstream media and parents, but also teachers and school communities. Attention is effectively diverted from curriculum implementation. That means that resources, teacher attention and class time is soaked up with attempts to improve the results of under-performing students. It means that the scope and depth of the curriculum is often ignored in favour of drills and activities aimed at improving student test performance.

In a way, this is sadly ironic for NSW, given that new syllabuses rolled out across 2014-2015 have the development of literacy and numeracy skills as two of seven general capabilities. Specific content in these syllabuses has been developed to strengthen and extend student skills in these two areas. 

Before teachers had the chance to fully implement the new syllabuses and assess student learning, the NSW government jumped in and imposed a ‘pre-qualification’ for the HSC: that students would need to achieve a Band 8 in the Year 9 NAPLAN reading, writing and numeracy test. Yet another requirement in the heavily monitored NSW education system.

And if the federal education minister has his way, we’ll see compulsory national testing of phonics for Year 1 students, in addition to the NAPLAN tests administered in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; and then in NSW, students will have to deal with the monolithic HSC.

So the ongoing and worsening problem for schools will be finding the space for teaching and learning based on the NSW curriculum.

Similar things are happening in other states and territories.

The dark side of national testing

As we know, mass testing has a dark side. Far from being the reasonable, benign ‘snapshot’ of a child’s skills at a point in time, we know that the publication of these tests increase their significance so that they become high-stakes tests, where parental choice of schools, the job security of principals and teachers and school funding are affected.

And here I will add a horror story of how this can be taken to extremes. In Florida in 2003, the Governor, Jeb Bush, called the rating of schools based with a letter A-F, based on test results, a “key innovation”. Using this crude indicator, schools in this US state were subsequently ‘labelled’ in a simplistic approach to numerous complex contextual features such as attendance rates, student work samples, the volume and types of courses offered and extracurricular activities.

Already in Australia NAPLAN results have a tight grip on perceptions of teacher and school effectiveness. And quite understandably, schools are concentrating their efforts in writing on the ‘text types’ prescribed in the NAPLAN tests: imaginative writing – including narrative writing, informative writing and persuasive writing.

So what might be going wrong with writing?

As I see it, the pressure of NAPLAN tests is limiting our approaches to writing by rendering types of writing as prescriptive, squeezing the spontaneity and freshness out of students’ responses. I agree it is important for students to learn about the structural and language features of texts and to understand how language works. However it appears that schools are now drilling students with exercises and activities around structural and language features of text types they’ll encounter in the test.

Has the test, in effect, replaced the curriculum?

Again taking NSW as an example, writing has always been central, dating back over a century to the reforms in both the primary and secondary curriculum in 1905 and 1911 respectively. The then Director of Education, Peter Board, ensured that literature and writing were inextricably linked so that the “moral, spiritual and intellectual value of reading literature” for the individual student was purposeful, active and meaningful. In addition to this, value and attention was assigned to the importance of personal responses to literature.

This kind of thinking was evident in the 1971 NSW junior secondary school English syllabus, led by Graham Little, which emphasised students using language in different contexts for different purposes and audiences. In the current English K-10 Syllabus, the emphasis is on students planning, composing, editing and publishing texts in print or digital forms. These syllabus documents value students engaging with and composing a wide range of texts for imaginative, interpretive and analytical purposes. And not just to pass an externally-imposed test.

In a recent research project with schools in south-west Sydney, participating teachers, like so many talented teachers around Australia, improved student writing skills and strengthened student enjoyment of writing by attending to pedagogical practices, classroom writing routines and strategies through providing students choice in writing topics and forms of writing; implementing a measured and gradated approach to writing; using questioning techniques to engage students in higher order thinking and portraying the teacher as co-writer.

These teachers reviewed the pressures and impact of mass testing on their teaching of writing, and like so many around Australia, looked for ways to develop the broad range of skills, knowledge and understandings necessary for all students, as well as ways to satisfy the accountability demands like NAPLAN.

Without the yoke of constant mass testing I believe teachers would be able to get on with implementing the curriculum and we’d see an improvement not only in writing, but also across the board.

Don Carter is senior lecturer in English Education at the University of Technology Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Education, Master of Education (Curriculum), Master of Education (Honours) and a PhD in curriculum from the University of Sydney (2013). Don is a former Inspector, English at the Board of Studies, Teaching & Educational Standards and was responsible for a range of projects including the English K-10 Syllabus. He has worked as a head teacher English in both government and non-government schools and was also an ESL consultant for the NSW Department of Education. Don is the secondary schools representative in the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia and has published extensively on a range of issues in English education, including The English Teacher’s Handbook A-Z (Manuel & Carter) and Innovation, Imagination & Creativity: Re-Visioning English in Education (Manuel, Brock, Carter & Sawyer).

17 thoughts on “The dark side of NAPLAN: it’s not just a benign ‘snapshot’

  1. Deb McPherson says:

    Excellent article. Thank you Don for holding NAPLAN up to the light. The Florida example is a horrifying. reminder of how this huge testing regime can have appalling consequences.

  2. Don Carter says:

    Thanks Deb. There is much data about the negative aspects to mass testing, nationally and internationally…and the irony is that we have a strong curriculum in NSW which is being sidelined. Those championing the tests should be championing the scope and depth of our curriculum.

  3. Mark Flood says:

    Why do we need to “satisfy the accountability demands like NAPLAN” at all?
    The glory days, which we are told that our achievement has shrunk away from simply did not have the accountability regime and accompanying billion dollar accountability industry that now exists. Minimal training, barely existent benchmarking, more job security…All the things which are eroded now in the name of improvement.

    NAPLAN isn’t even assessed consistently; some states do it in-house within their department, some states contract out to edu-enterprise for eight figure sums.
    With Pearson and (the deceivingly governmental sounding) ACER involved there are clear conflicts of financial and business interest. It is also my belief that ongoing decline is what keeps them being asked back and tasked with more and more absolutely irrelevant surveys and tests.

    It doesn’t matter a great deal how John in Adelaide compares to Jack in Dunolly, and as regards the imminence of feedback NAPLAN is so divorced between test and result as to fundamentally nobble its use; it also comes up very short when compared to the day in, day out, ongoing assessment, reflection and differentiation which the classroom teacher applies.

    The discussion about whether students are improving or not should be for faculty groups and family discussions, not front page news.

    Accountability needs to be vastly rolled back and teachers need to be freed to simply teach.

  4. Matt says:

    Absolutely. The best feedback for improved student learning is targeted and immediate. To suggest NAPLAN does anything to improve student learning is nonsense. Lets see if we can pay Pearson some more money to make the tests harder and give them the opportunity to keep collecting data and rolling out more ‘helpful’ NAPLAN study guides. That will surely fix the problem…

  5. Don Carter says:

    Thanks for your input, Matt. Your comments re the role of Pearson reflect our current situation in NSW education – that the “global measurement industry” (Biesta) is firmly entrenched in this state.

  6. Don Carter says:

    Thanks Mark, you make some interesting and relevant points. And your observations about Pearson and ACER are also interesting: it seems that the role of these two organisations are receiving wide interest now. Following my article on NAPLAN in yesterday’s Daily telegraph, I had a number of responses, one of which (from a teacher) was quite damning about Pearson in particular. I especially like (and agree with) your point that “teachers need to be freed to simply teach”. Yes, indeed: what they were trained and are paid to do…

  7. Ania Lian says:

    Hi Don

    Is there an intellectual justification of the questions that NAPLAN tests to evidence its claims that it tests what students need to know?

    best wishes
    ania Lian

  8. Don Carter says:

    Hi Ania, thanks for your response and question.

    Following my Daily Telegraph article yesterday, I received an email from ACARA stating that ACARA publishes a technical report for NAPLAN each year, which specifies the reliability and validity of the tests. The link to the 2015 report was provided but I am unable to reproduce it here, but you can Google it.

    The report was put together by ACARA, UWA and Pearson.

    The 2016 NAPLAN Report states that “NAPLAN tests broadly reflect aspects of literacy and numeracy within the curriculum in all jurisdictions. The types of test questions and test formats are chosen so that they are familiar to students and teachers across Australia.” (p.iv)

    The emphasis appears to be on comparisons: “NAPLAN 2016 employed a narrative test. In order to make comparisons year-on-year and observe trends in data, new analytical methods were used this year to put the results of this year’s narrative test onto the existing persuasive writing scale, creating a NAPLAN writing scale comparable for both genres.” (p.iv)

    Your question is a good one and worth asking ACARA directly.


  9. Great article Don. I am at a loss as to how we can move forward. There are so many competing views out there. I thought I would share a couple of comments from my 1st Year Preservice teachers who exemplify the very diversity that exists in the education community. These students completed an oral presentation on assessment and they chose NAPLAN as their topic.

    “NAPLAN inflicts many different feelings and emotions in students. Shame, anxiety, embarrassment, inadequacy are just a few examples of what students feel in relation to these tests. Students who already face problems with anxiety, learning disabilities, special needs, and those who don’t have English as a first language are the most common victims of these feelings. Students who need extra support in class time, such as special needs or children with learning disorders, are left stranded and the test in no way is an accurate representation of their knowledge and skills. The test also takes away time from valuable class time which could be better spent learning the content that is set within the curriculum, rather than a test that has no impact on their final reports. The negatives of the test outweigh the positives and exceptions need to be made to make it equal for students of all abilities”. Katelyn Hoffman and Jami McIntyre, 1st Year Preservice teachers

    “When talking about NAPLAN and as a previous student who knows the views of fellow students at school I believe my view is very different. Unlike my peers who view NAPLAN as a waste of time and resources I believe it is a tool for advantage for not just the government but also for our local schools, teachers, parents and for students themselves. Just yesterday I heard on the news that a local school had 100% of their year 7 students performing well above the national average in mathematics. I was thoroughly impressed and although I have no children of my own I immediately said “I want to send my kids to this school.” I can only imagine that parents out there are having the exact same thought. This could be a benefit for schools all around, by using the NAPLAN results and a competitive tool among schools and among teachers. By giving the teachers, students, parents and schools an idea of where individuals sit in comparison to a national average it provides a gauge of where they are at and where they need to be. To me, the benefits the test brings totally outweighs the amount of time needed to complete the test.” Josephine Goldsworthy, 1st Year Preservice teacher.

    There were other examples in the cohort of Preservice teachers but these two seem to bookend some of the range of views.

  10. Don Carter says:

    Thanks for your reply, Helen and for including the quotations from your pre-service teachers. The second quote is interesting from a number of angles, with one being the idea of a “national average”. One of the problems is that the tests ‘assess’ set a narrow set of skills, thus making it difficult to make any comprehensive judgments about a student’s capacities or the quality of a school beyond the skill set targeted by the test. And yet there seems to be a willingness to judge a school’s ‘worth’ (or an individual teacher’s) on NAPLAN results from some. Such a view does not take into account so many aspects of a school: pastoral care policies and processes, school-community relationships and the like. In today’s SMH, Greg Whitby criticised NAPLAN by saying it was more about competition, rather than achievement. It seems that some in the community might be content with this. At least the test is being debated more publicly now and the Year 9 ‘standard’ receiving quite a bit of attention…
    Thanks again, Helen.

  11. Cherry Bogunovich says:

    All things NAPLAN must be questioned by parents. NAPLAN is political and when the ‘results’ are available they are reported on like the AFL- State of Origin. A campaign reminding parents of the NAPLAN regime of narrowing the curriculum, teaching to the test from Prep and that is is NOT mandatory that their children participate needs to be developed. Teachers are not listened to, nor are academics or mental health experts- Parents are voters. They need to step up and change this culture of testing- its starts with empty desks on NAPLAN testing day. They just need to do it- soon.

  12. Don Carter says:

    Thanks for your reply, Cherry. You make some important points that remind me that Australian and international research highlight 3 unintended negative consequences of mass testing: that there is a narrowing of the curriculum (as you point out); teacher instruction becomes more teacher-centred; and student motivation decreases. And one has to wonder how much ‘data’ do the tests provide that a child’s teacher does not already know…

  13. Thank you for highlighting challenges associated with NAPLAN testing. There will certainly be increasing demands on teachers and further stress will be placed on students to achieve. For low achieving students, further testing alone is not the answer. Rather, a continuing focus on positively engaging students in learning through a variety of teaching strategies focussed on improving numeracy and literacy skills is the answer to raising the achievement levels of students. There also needs to be a balance between covering syllabus content and preparing students for external testing. Hopefully innovative and creative ideas are still implemented by teachers through their teaching of the curriculum content so that students can engage in a positive way as they work to further improve their numeracy and literacy skills, rather than students being disengaged from learning and anxious about their academic future because of poor performance in one test on one day of their school life.

  14. Don Carter says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Annette. Yes, so much depends on the professional and creative approaches teachers take in the classroom – and this won’t change. One of the things that always strikes me is (as you mention) the stress involved in these tests. The issue is not only an academic issue, it’s a student well-being issue.

  15. Roslyn Happ says:

    I have not chosen to be a ‘blogger’ before. However, it is time to ‘do something radical’ as too many children, teachers and families are being negatively affected. It’s not just ‘test scores’ we are talking about. At 69, with experience as a high school science teacher, primary school music teacher and piano teacher, I have been identifying ‘limiting factors’ in our education system since the mid 80’s. Naplan has added to them and is making the task of teaching less joyful and more stressful. I believe that it is time to get Four Corners involved to expose the reality, like they did with the detention centres. What are these limiting factors? Number one, is taking all the ‘joyful subjects’ away from the responsibility of the classroom teacher, even in early childhood, with the implementation of the ‘so called specialist’. This would have to be the most inefficient expensive ‘change’ ever made. I predicted that once that was established and classroom teachers got used to handing over responsibility for music, sport, art, drama etc … that training in these subjects would become less important, and the practice of these subjects by classroom teachers would decline. I was employed as a ‘music specialist’ but did not agree with the concept as it was implemented at all. How can a subject which requires daily practice be taught in one lesson per week? On the other hand if specialists cooperated with classroom teachers, that would be quite different. The same goes for languages, dance, sporting skills etc. All of these subjects are paramount to developing the whole child and their readiness to read and write. Now I find students come to me to learn piano and they don’t know the difference between left and right, they have very poor memory skills, can’t sing in tune and struggle with rhythm. The Finns know that if you don’t worry about reading until at least 7, but rather concentrate on all these other things, the child learns better in the long run. This is an approach based on ‘knowledge’. Children are only ‘little children’ for a short time …. How quickly their minds absorb the spoken word, song and dance. How precious is their enormous ability to imagine and play. The Finns also have a system of allowing the children to be thoroughly active every 45 minutes … either free play or sport or dance. Once again, this is based on ‘knowledge’. We know children need to be active. They are naturally active … how beautiful they are when we allow them to be children. We have to speak up … and actually get something done. All of this ‘must’ be exposed. The billion dollar industry of measuring and collating data is a ‘waste of tax payers’ money’. The science is clear. The proof is there. Naplan is negative. I am not against testing …. the old test book that came home to the parents each Friday will do. There will always be scholarships that the bright kids can apply for. However, the average kid does not need to be intellectually pressured before they are ready. We’re all different. Let’s love those scruffy messy kids who love to live in their imaginations, to laugh, to play and to be boisterous. Let’s teach them with love and joy and share their hearts full of wonder. And let’s not give them home work. Let’s teach them with understanding so that ‘they don’t need home work’. The Finns don’t believe in homework and get much better results than us. I would like Four Corners to expose the ‘testing industry’ for what it is and the damming effect it is having on the health of our children, teachers and families. I would also like them to expose the ‘inefficiencies’ of the so-called DOTT scheme which allows teachers to ‘hand over’ responsibility of music, art, sport, science, drama, languages … subjects which by their nature bring joy and balance into the daily lives of both children and teachers.

  16. Mark says:

    While I agree with practically all of this, I would like to say one thing; beware of the Finns! Their system of education is vastly different and homework is one of the least significant ways this manifests. They have universal childcare and structured early learning from age 3 and up, they respect teachers as professionals and reward them with considerable curriculum autonomy, as a nation are quite socially and economically homogenous…I find people tend to cherry pick the most attractive sounding bits of the Finns’ practice without drilling down and considering the vastly different public policy situation.

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