NAPLAN is severely inhibiting the capacity for educators to do things differently in the classroom, a new study has revealed.
The research from the Australian Catholic University’s School of Education, was the culmination of interviews with 27 teachers and seven school leaders at primary and secondary schools in Queensland, as well as classroom and staff meeting observations and artefact data.
While initially intended to identify students below minimum standards for literacy and numeracy and to target funding based on need, the research found NAPLAN’s social justice and equity position has instead been overshadowed by NAPLAN’s covert impact on school decisions and classroom practices.
Lead researcher Dr Rafaan Daliri-Ngametua, of ACU’s School of Education, said the high-stakes test had become so embedded in teaching and learning programs and school-level decision making, it was difficult to distinguish between teaching work and NAPLAN-oriented teaching work.
“Greater accountability and data visibility of NAPLAN results has led to it covertly shaping everything from staff and resource allocation to curriculum decisions and teaching priorities,” Dr Daliri-Ngametua said.
“When performance and policy decisions are dictated by a narrow measure such as NAPLAN scores, it severely inhibits the capacity for educators to do things differently.”
The research, published in the Journal of Education Policy, found that teachers are making decisions about what text types to teach and how long to spend on them based on NAPLAN’s use of persuasive or narrative writing prompts.
One teacher lamented, “poetry is always shoved at the end of term…drama’s gone down the toilet”, while another described the need to focus on narrative and persuasive texts as a “monkey on our back”.
The study also found that school leaders are basing staffing decisions on what teachers and learning support staff are best suited to NAPLAN testing years (3, 5, 7, and 9) to, as one teacher said, “make sure that the children are...skilled up”. Another teacher described how learning support staff in Year 6 was limited because such supports had been moved to the “NAPLAN years, because…NAPLAN is important”.
Another issue the researchers identified was that teachers in NAPLAN testing years feel pressured by NAPLAN results, with one teacher stating, “Grade 3 and grade 5 are not year levels that I want to be on”.
‘It’s almost like NAPLAN is our Bible’
The findings by the ACU researchers reinforce earlier research that shows teaching approaches in Australian schools are heavily influenced by NAPLAN, often dominating curriculum planning.
The teachers interviewed reported much of their teaching programs are aligned with NAPLAN testing topics, with one teacher saying, “it’s almost like NAPLAN is our bible, and that all our teaching and learning revolves around that”.
However, Year 6 was described as a time when NAPLAN was not as relevant, thus giving teachers a reprieve.
As one teacher said, “…it really creates this amazing environment where we can actually just focus on the teaching without having to worry about NAPLAN”.
Dr Daliri-Ngametua said the qualitative findings would be replicated across Australia and also internationally, given the widespread use of and focus on standardised testing results as a measure of student success.
“This research highlights NAPLAN’s hidden and normative influence on school decision-making and teaching and learning practices, which has significant consequences on teachers’ work, their autonomy of practice, and wider schooling structures,” she said.
“NAPLAN has become a dictating force in curriculum development, teaching priorities and resource allocation, making it a troublesome and influential policy driver.”