Next week marks the beginning of the controversial and high-stakes NAPLAN tests that will assess the literacy and numeracy skills of students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
While the test is acknowledged as a helpful diagnostic tool, just how useful is it to teachers measuring individual student performance?
Dr Glenn Savage from the University of Western Australia acknowledged that NAPLAN has served as a “positive force for equity” by focusing attention on clear differences in achievement between young people from different social backgrounds.
However, he pointed out that the test has also pushed aside other important arguments about equity.
Citing an example, Dr Savage referred to a principal who heads up an inner-city school in Perth. He considered his school to be ‘highly equitable’ because most of his students, irrespective of their socio-economic background, performed well on NAPLAN.
“The definition of an equitable system, to quote the OECD, is now understood to be one in which ‘a young person’s personal and social circumstances are not obstacles to achieving educational potential’,” Dr Savage said.
“So with NAPLAN, by developing standardised tests that can then be mapped against a young person’s background, there is no doubt the test has opened up a rich conversation about the link regarding students’ background and performance.”
Dr Savage said this shows that if a student grows up in a rural or low-socio-economic area – or comes from an Indigenous background – they’re more likely to underperform on NAPLAN compared to children from more advantaged circumstances.
“I think this is really useful, because it can help us target policy interventions that would seek to address disadvantage and underperformance,” he said.
“However, I think we need to be careful not to put blinkers on and let this specific understanding of equity dominate all other ways of thinking about it.”
Dr Angelique Howell of the University of Queensland (UQ) has completed research on NAPLAN, with a particular focus on students’ experiences of the tests.
In general, Dr Howell says principals, teachers and parents involved in her research have tried to limit conversations about NAPLAN to reduce the focus on the test, and thus minimise children’s anxiety.
However, this has the unintended effect of failing to provide children with adequate information about NAPLAN, leaving them to draw their own conclusions.
“As a result, some children construct the test as high-stakes, even though it was designed to be low-stakes,” Dr Howell said.
Dr Howell said that while it can be difficult to provide consistent messages to children in the midst of the adult confusion and debate around NAPLAN, it is important for adults to let children know that there are no negative consequences if they do not do well.
“Children also need to be provided with opportunities to ask questions, with an expectation that they will be taken seriously and answered accordingly,” she said.