The naysayers must face the writing on the wall: NAPLAN will improve literacy

by Ben Jensen

Published by The Australian, Wednesday 16 October 2013

Computer-based assessments are one way to make the test a richer source of data.

The new government has the opportunity to take a systematic approach to improving NAPLAN, the national tests that students sit in Years 3,5,7 and 9 of their school education. There has been talk of expanding the range of subjects tested, bringing forward computer-based assessments and changing the arrangements governing who runs NAPLAN.

Methodical management is required for these significant reforms to be effective.

Julia Gillard’s commitment to improving education meant NAP-LAN was finally introduced in 2008. But like all great initiatives there were teething problems that still need to be addressed and there remains substantial room for improvement.

Criticisms, most of which were misplaced, were allowed to fester which reduced the positive impact NAPLAN can have. This has to change if productive reforms are to he achieved. A clear narrative has to be developed that shows how NAPLAN can improve children’s learning.

NAPLAN had been strongly criticised for placing too much emphasis on literacy and numeracy, and creating a “high-stakes” exam that forces teachers to “teach to the test”. These criticisms need to be addressed by highlighting how they ignore the evidence.

Before the introduction of NAPLAN and the national curriculum, Australia had some of the lowest requirements in the OECD for the amount of time devoted to teaching literacy. Now, one in four primary school students performs below international minimum benchmarks. We have the worst primary school literacy of any English-speaking country and are only just above the lowest performing developed countries in the world.

Too many critics ignore the importance of literacy in school education. Children have to be able to read to simply participate in school. There are long questions in maths and science, and texts in history, social studies, English and other subjects and extracurricular activities. Students who can’t read can’t even begin to succeed in these areas. They become disenchanted and are significantly more likely to drop out of school and struggle to find employment They also affect other students.

Disruptive students are more likely to have poor literacy that prevents them from being a meaningful contributor.

Some critics claim that NAP-LAN has resulted in widespread teaching to the test. We simply have to look at the NAPLAN results to realise this isn’t true.

Teaching to the test means that teachers prepare their students for NAPLAN by drilling them on multiple-choice tests and rote learning to get higher scores. This is happening in a few schools and it needs to stop. But if it was widespread we would expect to see an increase in NAPLAN scores. We haven’t. NAPLAN scores have remained stable over time. Widespread cheating and test preparation would have produced different results.

The international results also highlight an inconsistency in the way NAPLAN is presented.

According to NAPLAN only 3-6 per cent of our primary school students perform below minimum benchmarks. Why then do international tests have 25 per cent of our primary school students performing below international minimum standards of proficiency. Are our NAPLAN benchmarks too low? This discrepancy is creating confusion and undermining confidence in NAPLAN.

Moving to computer-based testing will significantly enhance NAPLAN. NAPLAN effectively assesses students with middlerange ability levels but struggles with students at either end of the spectrum. This will change with computer-based assessments. If a student is getting lots of questions correct, harder questions are provided that better assess their higher-order abilities. If they are getting questions wrong, easier questions pop up to assess where they sit at the lower end of the scale. This will provide a much richer source of information about literacy and numeracy.

Computer-based assessments may also get results to teachers more quickly. To be of most use, teachers need results straight away so they can adjust instruction according to each student’s ability. It is debatable if NAPLAN results can be delivered this quickly but if not, other methods could be made available to complement NAPLAN.

None of these issues have been large enough to stop what is a fundamentally good program. But addressing these issues systematically will significantly improve federal school education policy.

Reform will be difficult. The national framework on which NAPLAN is built is an agreement between the commonwealth and the states, which also own the NAPLAN data. Any changes, particularly concerning governance, will have to have support from the states (which is never easy) and the co-operation of school principals and teachers. The federal government would be wise to identify the best method (and the best people) to achieve national consensus on productive reform.

Ben Jensen is director, school education program, Grattan Institute.