As the NAPLAN tests begin this week, new research shows that a school’s approach to the test can affect student learning and well-being.
The test has come under fire by a range of academics, school leaders and even education ministers for being too narrow an assessment of individual student outcomes, as well as unnecessarily stressful.
To examine student attitudes to the test, a recent study by Flinders University compared students’ experiences at two schools with different approaches to NAPLAN. One school intensively prepared students for the tests; the other continued its normal program of teaching and learning.
The thirty-five participating students, in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 were later interviewed by the researchers and expressed their feelings about the tests through words and drawings.
Dr Katherine Swain, the study’s lead author, said every student’s experience was different, but that the contrast between the schools was stark.
Students variously found NAPLAN and NAPLAN preparation “boring”, “horrible”, and “exciting”. Students across year levels noted stress from the time pressure imposed by the tests.
One student found the tests “easy” and said they did not challenge him: “Sometimes I just want to stay in bed. I don’t like the easy work, like number facts, every single day we have to do them”.
The study found that students at both schools seemed unsettled by knowledge that the government was somehow involved in the tests, and “spoke of government as something to be feared”.
Dr Swain cautioned that the schools surveyed are unique, and her study cannot be used to generalise about all schools. Nonetheless, she believes it provides valuable insight.
“One can speculate that there are other schools engaging in similar ways, and schools ranging everywhere along the spectrum in between and perhaps beyond,” Dr Swain said.
As such, she considers it likely that the way NAPLAN is implemented is “having a significant effect on the experiences of many students, potentially leading to disengagement from learning.”
Dr Swain said that for all the debate over NAPLAN, little attention is given to students’ perceptions of the tests.
“Relationships develop between students and teachers when teachers genuinely listen to the voices of their students and students believe that what they say truly matters,” she said.
“NAPLAN should be retained because it has major benefits. The tests are a tool to improve schools and teaching, and provide transparency and accountability in the school system,” CIS education policy analyst, Blaise Joseph, said.
“NAPLAN can still be improved in future, and a possible review could consider how to better use NAPLAN results to help students.”