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If you have a child in Years 3, 5, 7, or 9, you know that it is NAPLAN week. Hopefully it isn’t causing too much stress and anxiety. It shouldn’t be. Most schools are good at keeping NAPLAN in its place, even if the media isn’t.

So what’s the point? It is an expensive program of nationwide testing and we know that testing doesn’t greatly enhance learning. To me, the real value in NAPLAN comes in what individual schools do with the data they receive. And that is completely up to the school.

What do we do with the data?

The data schools receive about literacy and numeracy from NAPLAN is quite extensive. It is possible to extrapolate specific information about a year group’s strengths and weaknesses and build programs that help address weaknesses. For example, it may be determined that the Year 7s at your school need to do more work with fiction texts or higher order questioning.

I don’t believe the data about one child is terribly useful in isolation. It is after all one test on one day, and that one test is a fairly blunt instrument. But in a school with large year groups, it can be useful to measure trends.

Santa Maria College employs Ms Faith Lee to analyse their data. Faith is a teacher with an honours degree in Mathematics and a Master of Education. Part of her role is to give data to teachers in a meaningful form so they can use it to help guide their teaching.

Ms Lee says, “The school uses data from many sources to track student progress. Measuring progress is important as it allows the school to identify students who are not reaching their potential and target resources accordingly. NAPLAN can be used as one of these tools, but it would never be used as the only tool.”

Changes

Many people claim that NAPLAN has no impact on a student. As of last year, that is no longer the case. Achievement of minimum literacy and numeracy standards are now linked to Western Australian Graduation. Achieving Band 8 in the NAPLAN tests can demonstrate these standards. The truth is most students achieve Band 8 by Year 9, so one graduation requirement can be ticked off early. If they don’t achieve Band 8 by Year 9 they will sit the Online Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (OLNA) conducted at the school in Year 10. This system is due to be rolled out in Queensland too.

Linking the opportunity to meet some graduation requirements to NAPLAN gives the tests some meaning without it being the end of the world. Consequently students try harder and the data schools receive about their year groups is more realistic and meaningful.

In the past a strong criticism of NAPLAN has been that the time delay in receiving results is so long that the information is rendered largely irrelevant to planning. That has been rectified. This year results will be given to schools in August. This time frame does allow schools the time required for planning and budget adjustments.

Online testing

Despite initial problems and delays in the rollout, NAPLAN online is in the not too distant futu. Santa Maria College Principal, Ian Elder, sees this as quite exciting as it will alter the nature of the test. The online test will be such that the questions asked would be determined by the questions the child has already answered. The stronger the child is academically, the more difficult the questions. This will give schools much more ‘fine grain’ information about a student and a cohort. Fine grain information means more meaningful feedback and planning. It will no longer be the fairly generic instrument that it is today. The advent of online testing should also result in a shorter turnaround between the test and the results becoming available.

Keep it in proportion

So, no, NAPLAN is not the happiest week of the school year. It has been blown well out of proportion to its importance in the media. However, rest assured that good schools are making the most of the data that is being gathered and it is not a completely pointless venture.

That said, how could we all contribute to a change in the culture around NAPLAN? Easy. Don’t talk about it; don’t compare your child’s NAPLAN report with other parents. Don’t put it on the fridge if it is ‘good’; don’t show disappointment if it is ‘bad’. It is one test on one day. Your child’s teacher assesses your child formally and informally on a daily basis. If you want real, meaningful feedback about where your child sits in their learning…ask your child’s teacher.


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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single sex and co-ed. Currently she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.


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