Parents across Victoria will soon get their children’s report cards for NAPLAN, the annual assessment of student learning in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

This year’s report card will look very different. For the first time parents will be told whether their child has met the new ‘proficient’ benchmark for their year level, in reading, writing, numeracy, and spelling and grammar.

This is a good move. It means parents will have better information about whether their child is on track at school.

Student report cards from teachers are helpful, but NAPLAN provides an independent and objective view of a student’s learning, and how this compares to other students across the country.

Gone is NAPLAN’s old ‘national minimum standard’, which was set far too low to be meaningful for parents and teachers. For instance, to reach minimum standard in punctuation, a Year 3 student needed only to be able to use full stops and basic capital letters like in the words ‘Melbourne’ and ‘Taylor Swift’.

And the Year 9 national minimum standard for reading was achieved by the average Year 5 student.

The minimum standard was set so low very few students fell short — last year in Victoria, fewer than one in 10 Year 9 students failed to meet it in reading. This low standard created a risk that many parents and teachers had a false sense of confidence in some children’s progress, and too many struggling students did not get the extra support they needed.

This year the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority, which is responsible for NAPLAN, has suggested that as many as three in 10 students may not meet the new, more rigorous proficiency benchmark.

For many parents who thought their child was on track, learning that they are actually struggling may be hard to hear. But ultimately this knowledge will empower parents to work with teachers to make sure their child receives targeted support.

So what do you need to know to understand your child’s results?

The new NAPLAN will mark students in four proficiency categories for each test: ‘Exceeding’ (the highest), ‘Strong’, ‘Developing’, and ‘Needs additional support’ (the lowest).

Unfortunately, the names of these categories are confusing. Parents will need to look closely at their child’s actual results to get a clear picture of their learning and what the next steps to help them along might be.

If your child is in the ‘Strong’ or ‘Exceeding’ categories, they have either met or exceeded the proficiency benchmark for their grade. This means they are likely to be broadly on track with their learning.

But make sure you look at the detail of your child’s individual results. Parents should be particularly cautious interpreting results in the ‘Strong’ category. This category covers a wide range of results, including students who have only just scraped past the proficiency cut-off but are still performing below the national average.

This means that even if your child’s NAPLAN results are labelled ‘Strong’, your child may not necessarily be high-achieving compared to other children at their school or around the country.

If your child is in the ‘Developing’ or ‘Needs additional support’ categories, they have not met the proficiency benchmark for their year level. This means they may struggle with learning in the classroom because they do not yet have the foundational literacy or numeracy skills they need to keep up with grade-appropriate content or learning activities.

Parents and teachers should not assume that students in these two categories will just naturally catch up.

Just like students in the ‘Needs additional support’ category, those in the ‘Developing’ category may require targeted help.

The quicker they get this the better. Struggling students tend to fall further and further behind if they cannot keep up with the pace and content of teaching in-class.

For students, this can be a deeply uncomfortable experience. Sitting in class day after day unable to grasp the content is demoralising.

Imagine being asked to write an essay on Macbeth if you struggle to read fluently or compose a clear sentence. It’s no surprise that this can lead to disengagement from school, poor behaviour, and declining mental health.

But that’s why the new NAPLAN report card is better than the old.

It will give more parents the information they need to help their children.

If NAPLAN suggests your child is struggling, you should talk to the child’s teacher and school about making a plan to ensure they get the support they need to get their education back on track.

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