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How important is NAPLAN testing really? Read about the pros and cons of literacy and numeracy testing.

NAPLAN – an acronym that has become synonymous with Australia education over the last decade. The National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy tests are held each year for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 covering skills in reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy. But what do they actually tell parents and educators? How important is NAPLAN testing really?

The NAPLAN testing is run at the direction of the Education Council and managed overall by The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). Having run since 2008 in both government and private schools, the literacy and numeracy testing has drawn criticism from the media and special interest groups. 

Perceived Benefits

According to ACARA’s handy infographic, NAPLAN testing holds a number of benefits:

  • For students and parents: there’s no pass, no fail. It is a chance to discuss progress with teachers and compare performance against national peers.
  • For schools: it maps student progress, and identifies strengths and weaknesses in teaching programs and set goals.
  • For teachers: it helps to identify high performers who need to be challenged, as well as students needing more support.
  • For governments and curriculum authorities: it provides valuable data to inform changes in the academic curriculum and school funding and infrastructure.

Criticisms

The literacy and numeracy tests have been widely criticised both in the media and by interest groups such as the Literacy Educators Coalition. Common issues include:

  • It’s just a snapshot. It is a one-off summative test of students and doesn’t take into account their progress or learning in their own classroom, nor does it honour the learning process or student thinking since there is no way for students to demonstrate this properly on their test.
  • Younger students are ill-prepared for such formal pen and paper testing. For Year 3 students, it may be their very first experience of formal testing.
  • It caters best for students who have strong literacy skills. Its significant literacy load means that weaker readers and students with English as a second language may perform poorly. Furthermore, some Indigenous students, those new to Australia, or disadvantaged students may not relate to some of the test content as it is so unfamiliar to their life experience.
  • Publishing results on the My School website puts pressure on schools to perform. This can result in schools spending too much time ‘teaching to the test’ to the detriment of the normal curriculum.
    The results are not a reliable measure of a school’s performance, as it is only a measure of performance at the time of testing. Years 3, 5 and 7 are intake years for many schools and incoming students can positively or negatively affect results.  
  • It creates additional stress and anxiety, particularly in younger students.
  • Data cannot be used to effectively inform teaching. Testing occurs in May and the results come out in October, with only a term remaining of the school year. Primary school teachers generally don’t teach the same group of students the following year.
  • It is a poor indicator of teacher quality. Great teachers can help weaker students improve yet this is not reflected in the results, especially in low socio-economic areas.
  • It can deliver powerful labels that pigeonhole some students as unintelligent. These labels can take a lifetime to change.

It could be argued that NAPLAN is fundamentally flawed. However, the fact that it has persisted over a period of almost ten years suggests that the government values the data it provides about schools and students. For parents, caregivers, teachers and students, we need to take the results with a grain of salt. We shouldn’t allow it to take over the school curriculum or dent the confidence of students before they have really started on their learning journey.

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