What is NAPLAN’s future?

This fundamental re-shaping of NAPLAN must be done in consultation, with respect for the teaching profession.

With a review of NAPLAN underway, albeit with limited terms of reference, it is timely that we ask if this national assessment is still fit for purpose, IEUA Federal Secretary Chris Watt writes.

Since the introduction of the current assessment and reporting arrangements in 2008, IEUA has argued the program’s intended utility and value is questionable and confused.

Some have suggested that the program serves as a diagnostic tool for individual students, a ‘health check’ on Australian school education and a comparator of school-by-school achievement and success.

In relation to the latter, we have seen some media outlets distill the snapshot of a section of school education outcomes by adding disparate columns of scores and averaging the same to produce league tables.

In relation to the former we have seen the continued failure of the system to deliver student results, if they are indeed diagnostic, in any sort of timely fashion that would allow teachers and support staff any chance of strategic intervention.

However, more problematic for many is the idea that this thin sliver of school activity somehow represents in any adequate way a ‘health check’ on the achievements of schools against the breadth of the Australian curriculum or the aspirations of the Melbourne Declaration.

Member survey

To inform IEUA’s submission to the current inquiry a survey was sent out to IEUA members across all our branches. The IEUA online survey was completed by over 2800 members between 1-13 March 2019.

Some of the most powerful information was provided in the comments recorded by members completing the survey.

While a number of IEUA members completing the survey see value and utility in the current NAPLAN arrangements, it is evident that an overwhelming number have major concerns about the value and accuracy (in describing their individual students’ abilities) of the tests and have little support for the use of the MySchool website.

Overwhelmingly IEUA members support a formative assessment program that is created by and for teachers, that could be used when and where needed, as determined by the classroom teacher.

The IEUA survey utilised a sliding scale ranking system for most of the questions. The scale used ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’ as the end point parameters. The results were scored and then averaged. A score close to zero would indicate almost all responses were ‘strongly disagree’ while a score close to 100 would indicate ‘strongly agree’. On the question “do you believe the results of NAPLAN tests provide an accurate evaluation of your individual students’ abilities in numeracy and literacy” an average rank of 35 was scored, meaning IEUA members generally disagreed with the statement.

When asked “are the NAPLAN results useful for your planning for student learning” members indicated that overall they disagreed.

Data too late

IEUA members believe strongly that the NAPLAN data and results currently arrive too late in the year to be of high value. IEUA members agreed that “a national assessment tool, either in its current form or continuously available, should be accessible from early in the year for teachers to use according to their professional judgement”.

Similarly, IEUA members supported the notion that the “timeliness of the assessment and data should be determined by the classroom teacher”.

Over 70% of respondents indicated that their school spent time in the classroom ‘preparing’ for NAPLAN, with members indicating that this preparation impacted negatively on time available for teaching the curriculum, with participants scores ranging from ‘not much’ to ‘significantly’.

Less than 30% of respondents indicated that their school had collaborated with other schools in the last 2-3 years on how to improve literacy and/or numeracy as a consequence of the NAPLAN results/data. Two thirds of respondents agreed with the statement that they would “support the notion of a sampling process (in lieu of mass standardised testing in Years 3,5,7 and 9) to provide ongoing confidence in a needs based funding model (ie, accountability) and to confirm benchmarks for the use by classroom teachers”.

Overwhelmingly, 88% of respondents supported the proposition that “the development of formative assessment tasks, created by and for teachers, that would be available online for use in classrooms when and where needed (as determined by the classroom teacher) would enable valid teacher assessment of student outcomes against national benchmarks.”

The IEUA believes that schools, students and classroom teachers will be much better served by an assessment arrangement that provides for continual assessment with tools to support teacher professional judgement and allows for teachers to reflect and check their own judgements.

External checks

Unfortunately, the current arrangements are seen by many teachers as an external check on their professional capacity because of an erosion of trust, inflamed by ideological positions adopted by some education ‘commentators’.

Increasingly, teacher professionals and education researchers are reflecting on re-designing student assessments that are authentic and valuable to the student, the parents (carers) and the classroom teacher, by integrating the continual assessment in the classroom with a ‘student voice’. This approach, requiring time for the teacher to sit with the student and discuss what has been learned, and what they perceive and recognise as needs, would provide greater value to the data.

There is already a significant amount of data being collected on students. Teachers are currently overwhelmed by the data collection required and if the assessment program is not meaningful and valuable it is just a further impost that interferes with the teaching/learning opportunities in the classroom.

The following represents a snapshot of standardised in-school testing/assessment processes in one member’s kindergarten class:

  • Best Start Kindergarten Assessment
  • reading/ comprehension – runningrecords
  • literacy – observational survey
  • sight word recognition – Oxford WordList
  • mathematics – clinical interviews
  • vocabulary/reading
  • The BURT Word test and spelling –The South Australian Spelling Test.

It is worth noting that none of these tests/assessments are generated by teachers within the school. They are either endorsed by the system of schools, or selected by the school following professional development or direction from leaders of learning. There are also, of course, teacher-generated tests such as end-of-unit assessments or weekly spelling tests.

In short, there is no shortage of data currently available to teachers. If anything, our members are drowning in data and data collection requirements and NAPLAN seems to provide little additional value, if any.

The question as to whether NAPLAN has a useful and productive future in schools will depend on the willingness of state, territory and federal education ministers to broaden their consideration of the current review parameters (being only the reporting of NAPLAN on MySchool) and engage fully and frankly with the profession.

Not fit for purpose

IEUA believes that NAPLAN is not ‘fit for purpose’ and that there has been a departure not only from the stated objectives of the program, but from the role of assessments and the reporting on the MySchool website, from the nature of the assessments and the utility for classroom teachers.

A future NAPLAN should utilise a sampling process rather than full cohort, census style assessment. Similar school comparisons need to be replaced with comparisons of similar student cohorts; that is, students with similar socio-economic, educational advantage, language and other backgrounds.

IEUA believes that there is already a plethora of quality diagnostic tools available to schools and that ACARA could assist in reviewing, testing and rating the utility of these diagnostic tests against expected curriculum outcomes and learning progressions.

This fundamental re-shaping of NAPLAN must be done in consultation, with respect for the teaching profession.

If there is a political willingness by education ministers to respect the professional judgement of classroom teachers, then an evolved NAPLAN may indeed have a useful and productive future in the Australian school landscape.