The annual tests of school students’ literacy and numeracy are in full swing. About 1.3 million Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 will sit the online assessments, known as NAPLAN, over a two-week period.

It’s a major operation – for teachers and schools, for students, and for the bureaucrats working hard to ensure the testing, data analysis, and reporting run smoothly.

Not everyone thinks NAPLAN is worth all the hassle, and some worry it does more harm than good – that the tests are too narrow, that they cause too much stress for students, and that they exacerbate disadvantage.

And NAPLAN participation rates have been steadily falling, and are now perilously low in the Northern Territory and Queensland, potentially undermining the veracity of the test data for some cohorts of students.

Despite these challenges, NAPLAN is a cornerstone of Australia’s school education system and a critical component of the education ‘infrastructure’ that can help leaders improve the education of our children.

But that will happen only if leaders listen to the data and use it to inform policy change.

‘You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it’ is a common refrain among educationalists sceptical of standardised student assessments.

The sceptics have a point. Over NAPLAN’s first decade-and-a-half, there has been no improvement in reading and maths scores for secondary school students, despite increased funding per student.

Meanwhile, the learning gap between the most advantaged and least advantaged students more than doubles between Year 3 and Year 9, where it reaches the equivalent of a shocking four-to-five years of learning.

The reboot of the NAPLAN assessment scale in 2023 might provide the impetus Australia needs to lift student performance.

From this year on, ACARA – the Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority – will report students’ NAPLAN achievement against a new proficiency standard that constitutes a challenging but reasonable benchmark based on the level expected for a student who is on track with their learning.

Students above the proficiency standard will be rated as either exceeding (for our highest performers) or strong. Those who fall short will be rated as either developing or needing additional support (for our weakest performers).

The reform also ditches the woefully inadequate NAPLAN minimum standard, which created a false sense of confidence about how Australia’s students were faring.

Details on exactly how the new proficiency standard has been set remain scant, and we will have to wait for the NAPLAN results later this year to know exactly what the more rigorous achievement categories reveal about the performance of Australia’s school system.

Sobering picture

But we should brace ourselves.

In 2022, only 5 to 10 per cent of Year 9 students were identified as being below NAPLAN’s national minimum standard on reading and numeracy tests. ACARA has suggested, based on its preliminary work, that as many as 30 per cent of students on average could fall short of the new proficiency standard.

This is much closer to the sobering picture painted by Australia’s performance on the international OECD PISA assessments, in which around two-in-five Australian 15-year-olds fell short of our PISA proficiency benchmark in 2018.

The good news is there is a growing evidence base about what works best in the vast majority of classrooms to build students’ literacy and numeracy skills. But to lift achievement across the board, governments need to give more support to principals and teachers to put this evidence into practice.

Every teacher in every classroom has to be equipped with the knowledge, training, and tools they need to deliver great teaching day in, and day out. This includes clearer guidance on effective, evidence-backed instructional practices, greater access to screening tools to identify struggling students early, and more support to embed high-quality small-group tutoring in all schools.

Governments should ensure all teachers have access to exemplary curriculum resources that enrich student knowledge and reduce the lesson-planning workload for teachers.

Governments should boost the pay and responsibilities of our top teachers, so they can work with their colleagues to help hone teaching practice.

And governments need to better utilise the entire schools’ workforce – not just teachers, but speech pathologists, psychologists, disability support staff, and teaching assistants, all of whom are essential for high-performing schools and thriving students.

For all its frustrations, the rebooted NAPLAN might yet provide the wake-up call Australia desperately needs and provide an opportunity for our leaders to make good on their promise to deliver world-class school education for all students. The question is, will they take it?

Jordana Hunter

Education Program Director
Dr 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 economic policy.

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