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NAPLAN results slip, but ‘teachers concentrate on the write stuff’

Education Minister Simon Birmingham school NAPLAN
Education Minister Simon Birmingham meets students at Australind Senior High School. Photo: AAP
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Education experts have rejected suggestions that stagnating NAPLAN results after 10 years of the school test mean education standards are also slipping.

Preliminary results released on Wednesday showed an overall decline in writing skills and minimal improvement in reading and mathematics.

But experts say NAPLAN is a crude way of testing students, and its findings have been overplayed.

Is the test reliable?

Chris Presland, President of the New South Wales Secondary Principals’ Council, said the conclusion that students were underperforming was “silly”.

“As a country, our obsession with NAPLAN results is really quite ludicrous,” Mr Presland said.

“It is an assessment of what students can do on a very narrow range of skills on one day.”

Stewart Riddle, from the University of Southern Queensland, said the snapshot NAPLAN provided was “very limited”.

“For example, the year 9 numeracy test has 48 items. You don’t need a statistics degree to realise how difficult it would be to make judgments on a decade’s worth of schooling based on such a limited range of questions,” Dr Riddle said.

But Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at The Grattan Institute, said the drop in writing scores was a “major concern”.

“One of the reasons we haven’t seen as much improvement as we would like is that NAPLAN is a pretty blunt tool for teaching,” Dr Goss told The New Daily.

“Teaching needs to be targeted at the right level for each student, and NAPLAN is not the data that teachers need to do that.”

Average change in NAPLAN results across the states over one year.

Potential for problems

Misty Adoniou of the University of Canberra said we should look to NAPLAN for reasons why testing results have stagnated.

“Its aim was to give information to systems that would lead to improved educational outcomes – and it doesn’t appear to have fulfilled that role. Instead it is simply a recorder of decline. And I think it is a party to that decline,” Dr Adoniou told The New Daily.

“Its high-stakes nature, the public naming and shaming that accompanies the results each year, has changed the way we teach reading and writing.

“Many schools now focus on test preparation rather than the job of teaching reading and writing. And if there is one sure road to lower results, particularly in the writing paper, it would be to constantly give students mock NAPLAN writing tests as prep. The writing test, to its credit, is more nuanced than that.”

Dr Riddle noted there had been very little shift in overall performance since around 2008/09, when schools “worked out how to ‘play the NAPLAN game’.”

Simon Birmingham said the test was not the “be-all and end-all”. Photo: Getty

Dr Presland said NAPLAN was not designed to be a ranking tool. He said the “equity gap” between privileged and underprivileged schools showed the requirement for the Gonski 2.0 reforms of needs-based funding.

“We are a country which has a very, very high correlation between a person’s social economic demographic and their educational performance,” Dr Presland told The New Daily.

“Rich kids in Australia perform a lot better … than kids from poorer backgrounds.”

A spokesperson from ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) said the test was a valuable tool and denied it could lead to “naming and shaming”.

ACARA makes very clear that comparisons should be made only against schools that serve students with similar backgrounds. 

“ACARA also celebrates the achievements of ‘high gain’ schools — that is, schools that have shown growth in achievement from the previous NAPLAN tests.”

Can NAPLAN be helpful?

The preliminary results provide a snapshot for policy makers to understand where the education system is falling short, experts said.

Regions, schools and individual students can benefit further when more comprehensive results are released in a few months’ time.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the NAPLAN writing results were a “real concern” and highlighted the need for the Gonski 2.0 reforms.

However, Mr Birmingham said the test was not the “be-all and end-all”.

“But NAPLAN is important, and it’s important to give us a guide as to whether we’re getting those foundational skills right upon which we can then build more complex skills.”

The New Daily has contacted the state education ministers for comment.

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