NAPLAN Online: glitches, challenges and opportunities

Against the backdrop of some fierce criticism, loudly proclaimed concerns, and in the case of one state, a decision not to participate until glitches were ironed out, NAPLAN Online is fraught with challenge.

An article published by ABC Online on Friday reported that Education minister Kate Jones had pulled the pin.  Over 100 Queensland schools had been expected to participate in next month’s online national literacy and numeracy test.

She told the ABC that glitches would disadvantage students. Glitches included one question remaining on the screen the entire numeracy test, obscuring other questions and answers; and automatic correction of questions, which meant that students were not actually being tested on their work, the ABC report stated.

“I’m not going to put one student at a disadvantage because the online tool isn’t working properly,” she told the ABC.

“I think it’s much safer and wiser to delay the implementation of NAPLAN online this year.

In a doorstop interview on April 7 in Hobart, education minister, Simon Birmingham was asked, “In relation to NAPLAN Online testing, is it appropriate for that trial to go ahead in light of Queensland’s withdrawal today?”

Simon Birmingham replied, “We received a detailed briefing from officials in terms of all of the safeguards that are occurring in terms of the trial of NAPLAN Online.”

The minister then emphasised the importance of the trial and reiterated that “transitioning to NAPLAN Online will enable us to have faster results for Australian schools and much richer results in terms of individual student assessments”.

He cited a commitment from the jurisdictions who are continuing with that trial to work closely with officials on technological issues and ensure that all are resolved to their satisfaction, so schools can “have absolute confidence that it will work and will be successful this year”.

So, what is going on with NAPLAN Online? Will it sort itself out in time? In our Term 1 issue of School News, NAPLAN data analysis expert, Dr Warrick Clarke outlined the expected challenges and opportunities NAPLAN Online could present.

NAPLAN Online: challenges and opportunities

By Dr Warrick Clarke

A national approach to measuring educational outcomes is being adopted through the ACARA NAPLAN Online initiative which commences in 2017.  Each state and territory will determine their individual implementation schedule for all schools: government, independent, catholic – primary and secondary over a two-to-three year period. It is expected that most schools nationwide will transition to the new NAPLAN Online by 2019.

There is a strong rationale for its implementation across all schools in Australia. However, careful planning is required by principals and teachers to maximise the benefits and to mitigate the problems.  While there are challenges in adapting to digital processes, there are significant opportunities to enhance the educational experience. 

The immediate challenge is to ensure that NAPLAN Online is primarily a measure of students’ literacy and numeracy performance. However, there is the prospect that the students’ computer literacy competencies may skew the results. Schools will therefore plan to build students’ digital capacities through regular usage of the processes in the regular classroom teaching and learning context. Many schools have already incorporated ICT as an integral part of the learning program, and the adaptation to online assessment will be a relatively easy adjustment.  However, there are some assessment features that will require student practice to build confidence and capacity in the NAPLAN Online process.

The ACARA research showed that many students coped well with online testing, and motivation was enhanced. But schools will vary in their access to the required technologies. Consequently, provision is made to allow schools to stagger the testing times so that the entire cohort is not required to sit the test at the same time.

A range of devices and platforms can be used, including tablets and iPads. Furthermore procedures are being developed to support BYOD (bring your own device) and the necessary security arrangements are being investigated.  Where internet access is unreliable other ways to deliver the test in a non-real time environment are being explored (eg, portable servers).

In my opinion, there is little doubt that if the potential of digital assessment and learning is harnessed the benefits will ultimately outweigh the challenges of the transition. From a purely practical standpoint, administering the exam will be much simpler and cheaper as paper copies will no longer need to be printed, distributed, collected and marked. It also puts the Australian education system on the cutting edge and therefore better positioned to make advances in the future. The digital competency development may address some of the concerning trends in Australian performance revealed in the recent PISA and TIMMS international rankings.

The benefits of online assessments include the opportunity to broaden the scope of assessments to provide for varied stimuli and responses. The question designs include  a variety of interactive and multi-media questions that go beyond the conventional multiple-choice questions in the paper test. Question types might include drag-and-drop, clicking on images or words and even listening to audio instructions. While this adds a new level of complication, it creates an opportunity to gauge student performance in a wider range of problem solving contexts.

For students, online testing means that the tests can be adapted to the students’ achievement level. A foundation set of questions are used to determine each student’s potential, and then students can be automatically directed to question sets that are appropriate to their individual capacity. This provides for differentiated assessments, which ultimately provide more detailed information on student performance. The diagnostic information can then be used to design curriculum more differentiated curriculum, providing students with a more satisfying experience.

For teachers, the important diagnostic information is marked automatically, and returned quickly, to facilitate informed decisions about the learning program in that calendar year, rather than waiting months for the data. Remedial action can be undertaken immediately, and this adds credibility to the NAPLAN testing process.

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There is also the opportunity to utilise online assessment instruments during the learning program. Consequently workload is reduced.  These assessment instruments can replicate the digital assessment process and provide automated marking and immediate report generation.  The data-collection and accountability processes can then be managed during the learning program, providing ongoing diagnostic and performance information.

The digital assessments for learning provide students with the opportunity to gain confidence in digital assessment and learning experiences. This occurs in a manner that enhances the learning program, without adding extra workload for teachers. The development of digital learning competencies can create new opportunities for enhanced independent student learning and differentiation of the learning program. 

It is clear is that students will need various opportunities to practise the skills of online testing in order to maximize their NAPLAN performance.  Fortunately, some commercial products are already appearing on the market that help schools build student capacity and provide valued learning and assessment experiences. Products using online assessments and applying them as learning tools. This process turns assessment of learning into assessment for learning. In this method, students are given immediate feedback as they answer each question in a stress free, online experience. Students set their own pace; understand immediately when they’ve made a mistake and learn how to correct their errors as they go.

The strategy of providing students with immediate feedback is also useful in helping students complete the NAPLAN test more generally. Analysis of student responses to past NAPLAN questions shows that in many cases, students have simply misread the question or assumed information about the question without reading the question fully. Immediately making students aware of these errors helps students to avoid similar mistakes in the NAPLAN test.

Therefore, thoughtful planning is required to identify the issues, to meet the challenges and to capitalise on the significant opportunities that arise. On the one hand, the new NAPLAN Online provides the opportunity for a richer profile of Australian literacy and numeracy and a powerful diagnostic tool. On the other hand, it raises questions about the role that computer literacy will have on the results and represents a profound technological challenge for our schools, teachers and students.

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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