COVID-19 offers opportunities to consider ‘NAPLAN 2.0’

The spread of COVID-19 has had dramatic impacts on our schooling system, including the cancellation of the 2020 NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) test.

The decision was made to allow for school leaders, teachers and staff to transition to online teaching, and recognised the closure of centralised marking centres and a reduction of student numbers would affect the quality of the data.

This pause provides a unique opportunity to revise and reform NAPLAN, which has been heavily criticised since first introduced in 2008 by the Gillard government.

NAPLAN was designed to generate large-scale data to allow system-based analysis, and to put policymakers, researchers, and strategic educational planners in a better position to understand student performance.

Every year, the test is conducted for years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Participation rates are high – 93 per cent for Year 9, and 96 per cent for other year levels. It involves between 240,000 to 260,000 students across the four year levels.

Over time, the NAPLAN results inform system-wide policies, supports and resource allocation for school. Schools and researchers can use the data to understand student performance, improve teaching, and assess impact of teaching and learning approaches.

NAPLAN also provides schools with measures on the learning growth of students across a cohort, and within their school over time.

However, NAPLAN is also deeply problematic.

In a 2019 submission to the Education Council of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the Gonski Institute for Education argued that it was impossible for a single student assessment such as NAPLAN to be accurate.

The sole purpose of NAPLAN, they wrote, should be to monitor education systems against the purpose of education, “particularly on issues of educational excellence, equity, wellbeing and student attitudes towards learning”.

NAPLAN has become an imperfect navigation tool because it’s trying to do too many things. It needs to be realigned towards systemic improvement and school accountability.

In 2019, the nation’s education ministers came together and issued the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration (2019). This identified the main purpose of Australian education to be based on two interconnected goals.

The first goal – that the Australian education system promotes excellence and equity – aligns well with NAPLAN.

The second goal – all young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community – doesn’t.

NAPLAN simply cannot measure the second goal in its current form. Trying to use it in that way makes it problematic, and moves away from its original purpose.

A single measure administered once in a school year doesn’t adequately provide a holistic picture, and defeats the purpose of this national-level accountability tool.

NAPLAN shouldn’t be used as a diagnostic tool. To lift student achievement, it’s far better to use targeted teaching methods that rely on a better use of school-produced data and the judgement of expert teachers.

This data-informed process focuses single-mindedly on what each student knows at a certain point in time, allows teachers to target their efforts on what each student is ready to learn next, and to track that student’s progress over time.

A single measure administered once in a school year doesn’t adequately provide a holistic picture, and defeats the purpose of this national-level accountability tool.

The Alice Springs declaration also stated: “We will ensure that we place young Australians at the centre of our education system.”

When it comes to this, NAPLAN fails. It captures student progress at a single point in time, and the lag in results means it offers no real opportunities to adjust learning for that school year on an individual level.

Research from teachers also shows they believe there’s no real educational value to the test for individual students. Timing plays a big part in this. The test is conducted in May, and results are published three months later. It provides a snapshot of learning growth over two years, but no clear action on the immediate learning needs of the student, and nothing that can be effectively actioned for the school year.

Changing the timing of NAPLAN towards the end of the school year would make the test more effective. Results, coupled with the school’s diagnostic and achievement tests, could then be used to provide valuable and relevant feedback at the start of the following school year.

Reducing the wait time for results would further enhance the diagnostic reliability of the test, and support teachers in supporting student learning.

NAPLAN is a high-stakes testing regime because the test results are published on the MySchool website. High and low-performing schools have been identified in the media, and league tables created. It’s impacted on the ways that teachers and schools are perceived by their communities, and reduces a school’s success to a number.

It’s also given rise to negative consequences, including schools teaching to the test, the narrowing of the curriculum to focus on areas tested by NAPLAN, and a promotion of direct and explicit teaching for the test.

NAPLAN has led to increasing levels of student and teacher anxiety, and an overall decrease in student motivation, as well as the creation of unhealthy and non-inclusive classroom environments.

Again, these impacts are at odds with the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration, which says assessment should support teachers, students and schools to improve learning.

They characterised this in three ways:

Assessment for learning – enabling teachers to use information about student progress to inform their teaching

Assessment as learning – enabling students to reflect on and monitor their own progress to inform their future learning goals

Assessment of learning – assisting teachers, education leaders, parents, the community, researchers and policymakers to use evidence of student learning to assess student achievement against recognised goals and standards, and drive improvements in student outcomes.

Simply put, NAPLAN needs to be realigned to meet these goals.

The Gonski Review (2018) found strong evidence, within Australian schools as well as internationally, “that tailored teaching based on ongoing formative assessment and feedback are the key to enabling students to progress to higher levels of achievement”.

In other words, the most effective way to improve student learning is for teachers to tailor their teaching based on school-based assessments and professional judgement.

Rather than focusing on the past, NAPLAN must be able to provide schools with measures that help them look forward, and plan their continuous school improvement programs.

The role of teachers and school leaders must also be strengthened in any redevelopment of NAPLAN. They’re experts when it comes to their schools and their students, and any national testing program needs to demonstrate faith in their abilities as educational professions.

In that way, a “NAPLAN 2.0” can be both informative and progressive in improving our Australian education system in a way that’s consistent with our values.


School News shares this article under a creative commons license. It was first published on Monash Lens. Read the original article

Venesser Fernandes

Venesser lectures in educational leadership studies. Her areas of teaching and research interest include leadership and organisational development studies; school leadership; school accountability and improvement systems, data-improved decision-making processes; evidence-based school improvement systems, change management systems; quality management systems; globalisation and social justice in education; using and evaluating research evidence; and educational policy analysis and development.

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