Don’t fear NAPLAN, embrace it - Grattan Institute

Sitting NAPLAN has become a rite of passage for Australian children. But it remains controversial, with regular calls from some teachers, parents, and education unions to boycott the test or scrap it altogether.

This would be a grave mistake. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy assesses achievement in numeracy, reading, writing, as well as spelling and grammar for students in years 3, 5, 7, and 9 and provides an important health check for our schools and school systems. And this year, after unprecedented disruptions because of COVID-19, NAPLAN is more important than ever.

When the NAPLAN tests begin on Tuesday, they should be embraced by parents, teachers, and schools – not feared.

Rather than being a pointless (or even damaging) ordeal for students, NAPLAN provides important, independent insights into learning achievement and progress. This gives parents, teachers, and students themselves a solid platform to assess whether they are on track or whether they need additional support.

NAPLAN 2022 is particularly important for primary school students. It will provide the first opportunity for many parents to receive an independent check on the learning of their year 3 children, and for year 5 students, who missed out on year 3 NAPLAN because it was cancelled in 2020 because of COVID-19.

For schools, NAPLAN results help them benchmark the performance of their students over time, as well as of similar students across the country. This provides important feedback for principals. It can also play a critical role in keeping teachers’ expectations high – particularly for highly capable students in disadvantaged schools – and to guard against complacency – particularly in more-advantaged schools, where strong results might be better explained by students’ family background than a school’s “value-add” in the classroom.

And after more than two years of COVID-19 disruptions, NAPLAN insights are more important than ever for government education departments and the Catholic and independent school sectors to help guide decisions about where to focus additional resources and support for struggling students, such as funding for COVID-19 catch-up tutoring programs.

Last year’s NAPLAN results, for example, revealed that disadvantaged year 9 students in Victoria made six months less progress in reading between years 7 and 9 than similar students had in the two years before that. This year’s NAPLAN results will help education system leaders understand the longer-term impacts of COVID-19 disruptions to schooling.

Learning gap

For the whole community, NAPLAN is a critical tool that the public can use to hold governments to account for their education policies. Beyond the campaign slogans, NAPLAN data reminds us how much work there is left to do to tackle the shocking learning gaps between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged students in our community.

Grattan Institute research comparing the NAPLAN achievement of disadvantaged students (those whose parents did not finish high school) to the achievement of their advantaged peers (those whose parents completed a university degree) is sobering.

Across Australia last year our research revealed a gap in learning between these students that, in year 3, is already the equivalent of one year and seven months in numeracy and two years and four months in reading. But this gap more than doubles in size by year 9, to four years and two months in numeracy and five years and one month in reading. Wide gaps also persist between city and country students and between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

This legacy of unequal school outcomes will weigh heavily on the backs of our most vulnerable young Australians as they move into adulthood.

NAPLAN data demonstrate in straightforward terms that our education system doesn’t live up to its promise for all children. But NAPLAN alone won’t make our schools better. After all, you don’t fatten the pig by weighing it.

School performance will improve when we systematically invest in a highly expert teaching profession and make sure struggling students are identified early and get the support they need to catch up and thrive.

NAPLAN isn’t perfect. But it does give us a much clearer picture of the performance of our schools and students, and the work we have left to do. For all of NAPLAN’s frustrations, we would be worse off without it.

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Jordana Hunter is the Education Program Director at Grattan Institute. She has an extensive background in public policy design and implementation, with expertise in school education reform as well as economics policy.

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