NAPLAN — a guide or a competition

Most educational institutions in Australia have a ‘tag line’ — a statement that is supposed to be a pithy description of what the entire school community believes in. It isn’t surprising that a lot of the ‘tag lines’ have something to do with recognising the individual talents of each student and working with those talents to develop self-reliance and the ability to cope with whatever circumstances arise in the future. In other words, a lot of educational organisations claim that each student is a unique individual, with recognition made for the different life skills, aspirations and capabilities in their future lives — and is treated as such.

So to assist the educators in respecting each child as an individual, we as a society make the million or so Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students in the country sit a standardised test every year. Counterintuitive isn’t it? The testing takes place over thee days (in 2015 the dates were 12, 13 and 14 May) and is called NAPLAN.

The claim is standardised testing ‘supports good teaching, valuable data and school improvement’. The data is also used on the Myschool website. According to the NAPLAN website:

NAPLAN is not a test of content. Instead, it tests skills in literacy and numeracy that are developed over time through the school curriculum. Excessive test preparation using previous tests is not useful.
So what is standardised testing? Wikipedia will tell you that:

A standardi[s]ed test is a test that is administered and scored in a consistent, or "standard", manner. Standardi[s]ed tests are designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent and are administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner.
Standardised testing has a place in society. Medicine is put through a number of standardised tests prior to release to ensure that the health benefits outweigh any short or long term negative effect. Vehicles are crashed into concrete walls around the world to assess their safety should the vehicle unfortunately replicate the incident on the road with people inside it. Food, drink and many other substances are also tested to reduce or eliminate ill effects. Generally speaking, science knows that if a person ingests a known quantity of a pain relieving medication, it will perform certain actions in the body to give the effect of less pain. It’s the same with food, drink, detergents and so on — there is a certain amount of chemical that is considered to give a beneficial effect with little or no adverse side effects. Modern vehicles with engineered crumple zones and airbags also protect a human’s biology, so they can walk away from a crash that in the past would have caused severe injury or death.

That our medicine, motor vehicles, food, drink and other substances are subject to standardised testing is to be applauded and ensures our safety. Testing at this level also looks at our biology and how it interacts with external influence — not how our intellect is affected with stimulus.

If every school student in Australia were being prepared to be a statistician, standardised testing would be a useful method to ascertain if progress was being made. You could also argue that if everyone in Australia was a statistician, there would be a lot of necessary work that wouldn’t be done — and we probably don’t need more statisticians in any event.

Australians have a large variety of roles and obligations. While the country does need statisticians, we also need farmers, transport operators, sales assistants, office workers, teachers and a host of other professions. You might be able to argue that we also need politicians — after all ‘someone’s got to do it’!

Although we need a variety of people with different skills to run our society, there is probably an argument for the imposition of a standardised test across the country to determine that people can read, write and have a degree of numeracy as they leave school. Which would be fine if that’s all it was used for.

A few paragraphs earlier, I mentioned that the NAPLAN results are being fed into the school data that are freely available on the Federal Government’s Myschool website. Humans are a competitive species; accordingly, some will look for any advantage to give their children a perceived competitive edge. While the Myschool website is not supposed to be a ranking table

… the results have now become an informal selection test, taken into consideration by schools when accepting new students. For another, schools and parents have come to regard the test results as an absolute measure of education delivery.
The logic that your child will obtain a certain result because similar results were achieved in previous years is fatally flawed as it doesn’t take into account the very real probability that different cohorts of students have different abilities and skills, despite the educators teaching to the same script. Again, each person is an individual. If for example, the school that Einstein or Steven Hawking attended was subject to the NAPLAN process, it is likely that the result would be skewed as the particular cohort went through the school; others would have excelled as well due to the interaction between Hawking or Einstein and those around them on a daily basis.

If we are testing mathematical ability, standardised testing may have some validity — after all if the answer is 42, it is what it is. The only variable is if the student showed how they worked it out, or guessed the answer. While numeracy is tested, so is the student’s reading, writing and language (spelling, grammar and punctuation). Writing on the Fairfax website, Emily Frawley suggests:

NAPLAN's persuasive writing tasks do not showcase the skills teachers value nor those students need to master.
There would be a great deal of difficulty in ensuring standardised marking when it comes to persuasive writing for a test administered across Australia. While there would have to be a moderation system in place at the end of the day, most students would have a result based upon one educator’s view of their writing ability. Those that write professionally (and amateurs like me) will tell you that, while there is considerable thought put into each piece of persuasive writing, each reader will approach the writing differently, taking a different message from the text.

So do teachers teach what the student will need in real life or do they teach for the test? While you would like to hope that the NAPLAN was used in the way it was intended, evidence would suggest that some believe it is the be all and end all of education in Australia. The government body that oversees NAPLAN does have some practice papers on the website but will not release past papers (claiming copyright). There are however plenty of others that will step into the breach when there is a perceived need in the market, as this discussion on the Whirlpool Internet forum shows.

While schools can use the NAPLAN data to improve teaching practices for their students, parents have the right to withdraw their children from NAPLAN testing. The ACT Education Directorate is concerned about the high number of parents doing so in the ACT (they claim it is due to a philosophical objection). The ABC however suggests there could be other factors at play here. The High School Principal’s association has called for the removal of NAPLAN data from the Myschool website to reduce the possibility of the NAPLAN results being used as the sole determinant of future schooling by some parents.

Perhaps the Year 3 teachers at St Paul’s Primary School in Gracemere, Queensland, have the right approach. It has been reported widely that they gave their students the following note:

The NAPLAN Letter

To our dearest students from Year 3,

Next week you will sit your first Naplan test. Before you take this test there is something very important for you to know.

This test does not assess all of what makes each of you exceptional and unique.

The people that score these tests don't know that some of you love to sing, are good at drawing or can teach others how to use a computer program. They have not seen the way that some of you can dance with grace or speak confidently to a large group. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them when they are sad. They do not know that you participate in sports, help your mum and dad or that you play with your little brother, sister or cousins. They do not know that you are caring, thoughtful and that everyday you do your best. Because these attributes cannot be tested.

The scores you get from this test will tell you how you did on that day, but they will not tell you everything. They can't tell you that you have improved on something that you once found difficult. They can't tell you that you brighten up your teacher's day. They can't tell you how amazingly special you are. So come to school ready to do your best for the Naplan test and remember there is no one way to 'test' all of the wonderful things that make you, YOU!

Kind regards,

Mrs Egan, Mrs Schluter and Miss Bailey
While the note is alleged to be based on a similar item some years ago that originated in the USA, it is a sharp reminder that all the million or so students that recently sat the NAPLAN program in 2015 do have talents, skills and the right to the education they need to be their best. We can’t all be rocket scientists (or statisticians); not all of us have the skills or the desire. We all do have the skills and abilities to be an effective member of our community and wider society. Testing is probably a part of the process. Isn’t it better for well trained professional teachers to assess the capabilities of each student in their charge and implement strategies based on the individual teacher and/or their colleagues’ experience to bring out each students best?

What do you think?
While NAPLAN has become an integral part of our education system, is 2353 right in suggesting we are misusing it? Did the government make a mistake when it included the NAPLAN data on the Myschool website? Let us know what you think about NAPLAN.

Next week Ken looks at the Greek debt crisis and sees embedded in it a battle between capitalism and democracy in his piece, ‘The unhappy marriage of democracy and capitalism’.

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31/05/20152353 You have addressed an important yet contentious subject: testing students to enable predictions to be made. No matter what the field, this endeavour is fraught with problems and traps for the unwary. Prediction is never easy. Let me give you my experience in the field of medicine. The Chicago school of education did a study in the fifties of the content of medical examinations in the US and found that most written tests required only recall of isolated bits of medical information, almost no assessment of problem solving skills, and no appraisal of attitudes and values, which we know are so important in medical practice. Clinical examinations did little better. These tests were unable to predict who would make exemplary doctors. So in developing tests to assess competence in general practice/family medicine in Australia in the sixties, it was deemed necessary to create a battery of tests, including of course recall of factual knowledge, but as well as that, skill in interpretation and problem solving, as well as tests of attitudes and values, and manual skills. The result was a complex but comprehensive set of tests that sought to appraise all the attributes required by a good family doctor. The examination was widely lauded and replicated in other countries. We were attempting to come to grips with such attributes as those described in the letter you quote from Mrs Egan, Mrs Schluter and Miss Bailey. Clearly, such attributes are critically important in life, by equally clearly are impossible to appraise in a universal test such as NAPLAN, which focuses on numeracy and literacy. It is reasonable to test these attributes, as they are clearly essential for success in school, employment and life generally. Whether the existing NAPLAN does this validly and reliably is a matter for debate, as is the use to which the results are put by the children who undertake it, their parents, the school staff, the education authorities, as well as those institutions and authorities that provide and fund education. It is hard to imagine that a one-size-fits-all approach could possibly inform all these stakeholders. So maybe, despite its shortcomings, we should seek to derive from NAPLAN what it can reasonably provide, no more, no less, and seek continually to improve its predictive capacity. It would seem nihilistic to abandon it because it is unable to do more that it could reasonably be expected to do, and foolish to discard it because some pervert its use. I sympathise with those responsible for creating and refining NAPLAN, and with those who use it to make predictions. Experience tells us that we are unlikely to ever create a test that will satisfy all, that will not attract criticism, and that will reliably and validly tell us what we want to know, what we ought to know. As your title hints, NAPLAN should be used only as a guide, never as a competition.


31/05/20152353 I think you have passed the persuasive writing test. Now for the grammar ... I endorse Ad's points. NAPLAN is useful for what it does - tests literacy and numeracy at particular points in time. It provides a guide in the sense that schools and their teachers are able to assess the literacy and numeracy skills of their students against a national 'average' (or standard). Of course, it allows schools where students do well to claim that they are teaching literacy and numeracy in acceptable and useful ways and for teachers in schools where students do not perform so well to know that they need to do something differently. It is all, of course, based on the premise that literacy in English and ability in basic arithmetic are essential in our society. That premise is largely true but the cases where it isn't are particularly the ones that only teachers and parents can know in regard to individual students. Where NAPLAN goes wrong is when it is used on the Myschool site to suggest that one school is better than another without, as you point out, taking account of each cohort of students: their social background, the ability of parents to provide educational resources, and so on. Personally, I think there is a use for NAPLAN but it is one that should be primarily for teachers so they can adjust to the needs of their students in achieving basic literacy and numeracy. I imagine that the real reason for putting NAPLAN results on Myschool wasn't to enable comparison of schools but to ensure that the whole process was transparent. While there is a case for transparency, it is more dubious when that transparency has unforeseen consequences (unwarranted comparison of schools). There is no easy answer but it is an issue that educationalists and politicians should be discussing.


1/06/20152353, Ad astra, Ken I am persuaded by you all! [ I always feel a bit like one of the fickle mob of Roman civilians in Shakespeare's first play Julius Caesar, being addressed first by Brutus, one of the conspirators who murdered Caesar, justifying his action, and then by Caesar's loyal friend Mark Antony, who changes the mob's minds to exactly the opposite opinion. ] NAPLAN seems to me the formalisation of one side of a never-ending wrestle between those who argue for a holistic education and those who urge "return to the 3 R's". As everyone here recognizes, the latter is the truly testable side, the other qualities are assessable but are also a matter of opinion. I think Ad nails the sensible position. Certainly it is desirable that all children are essentially literate and numerate, at least to a standard where they can educate themselves further in any direction they choose. But there's a lot more to a rounded education than that. The problem really is that private schools in particular can use favourable results in those 3R areas to promote themselves. Private schools, I read the other day, receive two thirds of Commonwealth funding. That allows smaller class sizes, so, more individual attention to kids with specific weaknesses. And that creates an artificial and unfair divide between State and private schools. I hate that.


2/06/2015Greetings Comrades The horrors of this Fascistic Government know no bounds. But surely, Abborrrtt's plan to strip citizenship from people he can is the craziest most extreme Right-Wing initiative there has ever been in this country. It is to the right of conscription for our self-induced war in Vietnam. That 40 of his crazy cohorts are urging him on shows the craziness of LNP thinking, and that many of the rest of his crazy cohorts - including Brandis and Cory Bernardi ! - have flatly opposed the measure as being beyond the pale shows the depth of division and the level of confusion in their ranks. More than that - it seems impossible of achievement does it not? How is he going to get it up, when so many of his own front bench oppose it? Well I probably already know: Cory and his ilk will support a *lesser* Bill that purports to be fairer, less extreme, as in, only dual citizens and only if they will be accepted Over There. Well it won't be lesser, it will be outrageous but it will be treated by Murdoch as thoroughly necessary for our security. It's very scary legislation, designed to further RW ends generally. How about the Goverment's no-show as Bill moved his SSM Bill yesterday eh. This, from our "adult" Government. Whatever else, Labor must find a way to own the Asylum Seeker issue. SSM may be fun, but this matter is critical. And it's the toughest problem of all.


2/06/2015TT You are absolutely right - as is the government but in a different way.:-) Perhaps Abbott would like to consider the issue in the context that I heard someone put on the radio yesterday. Take Abbott himself for instance. If we found he was linked to 'terrorism' he would lose his Australian citizenship because he can still apply for British citizenship but if they refused to grant him citizenship (which any right-minded person would) he would be stateless and we would have to hold him in a 'detention centre' indefinitely. Although the idea is appealing, it does show what could happen if they take this step. And what would happen if someone was denied citizenship by their country and told because they have Australian grandparents they could apply here - would Abbott grant them citizenship??? The other one I am concerned about is the 'Foreign fighters' Act. This is what they can charge people under if they return after being with IS and similar groups. But apparently it makes no distinction between those fighting with IS and those fighting against it - such as the union bloke from the NT who went to fight with the Kurds. Under such a law, any Australian who had fought with the International Brigade in Spain in the 1930s (against the facism of Franco and Hitler) could have been charged. And that is not right!! As usual for this government, it seems to jump in with both feet before testing for rocks in the water which all Australian kids are taught when very young - then again, we know Abbott is a pom. As you point out, it is particularly scary that there is a sizeable backbench element that is so far Right, they think these approaches are good ideas. Where such idiots come from I have no idea. It must be the ultimate proof that there is no god!!

Michael Taylor

6/06/2015Nice to see things are running smoothly. I've been away for a couple of months, hence my absence from here. And by the way, just for old time's sake I put up an anniversary post at Cafe Whispers. It's just a one-off.


6/06/2015Greetings Comrades I'm just using my new laptop for the very first time . Could someone please take on the task of deleting the spamsters here? I've lost the way of doing it and I feel so guilty. And now I'll see if I can send this. VENCEREMOS!


6/06/2015TT As current PM (that s Production Manager not a Tony Abbott impersonator), I am aware of some of the problems that our Team is having logging in to the new site. And we are looking into it. Also just to say your comment came through, so your new laptop is working - even though you have obviously seen that but at least you know now that others can see it and it not some figment of your computer's imagination. Also a belated welcome back to Michael. I enjoyed the piece you put on Cafe Whispers. You are welcome to post here as well any time.
I have two politicians and add 17 clowns and 14 chimpanzees; how many clowns are there?