The writing is on the wall


13 February 2019

Is the national literacy and numeracy assessment program worth saving after this year’s online fiasco? An AEU survey of teachers suggests not.

NAPLAN’S woes are piling up. This year’s online trial has been condemned as a debacle, independent experts say its “unreliable” results must be shelved, and a new AEU survey reveals 85 per cent of teachers consider the test useless as a classroom tool.

Publication of this year’s results on the My School website were postponed after heated debate at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and among state and territory education ministers.

Results in grammar and punctuation for students who sat the NAPLAN Online trial are believed to diverge widely from those of students who sat the traditional pen-and-paper tests.

The online trial also revealed a huge gulf in IT infrastructure between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

A confidential NSW Education Department briefing paper has confirmed that students completing the online assessment were at a disadvantage.

The briefing paper, obtained by the AEU under Freedom of Information, warned that NAPLAN results for this year and next "may be less helpful as a measure of school improvement" than previously seen.

Results should be discarded

An independent report into the trial by respected academics Les Perelman of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Professor Walt Haney of Boston College concluded: “The 2018 NAPLAN results should be discarded.

“Comparison of 2018 results with those of prior years is, for the most part, a futile exercise,” the report says.

ACARA is in damage-limitation mode as it tries to salvage its own reputation and that of its flagship test. Chief executive Robert Randall has announced — apparently unrelatedly — that he will step down in 2019 and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has pledged
a comprehensive review of NAPLAN if it wins office, with a “key role” for unions.

AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe says ACARA needs to explain “how and why the NAPLAN Online trial resembles a smoking ruin, and what it plans to do to salvage this debacle”.

But many educators will ask if it’s worth salvaging. The findings of the AEU’s annual State of our Schools survey make savage reading. The survey was conducted in NAPLAN Online trial schools and received 7,800 responses, including those from 700 principals.

The results show that educators have little faith in the test. Among teachers, 85 per cent say it was “not effective as a diagnostic test” — NAPLAN’s key purpose. More than half of principals agree.

Despite the test’s manifest flaws, teachers say it is increasingly dominating their classroom time. Nearly three in five say they spend too long preparing for tests (58 per cent) and administering them (57 per cent), including a quarter who say they spend “far too
much time” on these processes.

There is growing pressure on teachers to improve NAPLAN results, say 76 per cent of teachers. And 75 per cent of teachers say the flawed metric is becoming a key measure of school performance.

That has led to greater stress levels among students — identified by 65 per cent of teachers — and reduced the focus on other areas of the curriculum, according to 54 per cent of respondents.

Principals, too, have lost what faith they had in NAPLAN. Two-thirds (67 per cent) say it is not an effective way of measuring their school’s performance, and three out of four (74 per cent) say it is not an effective way to compare schools — the primary purpose of publishing results on My School.

NAPLAN and My School make up one of the biggest problems in new education minister Dan Tehan’s in-tray.

The AEU has urged Tehan to conduct a root-and-branch review of the NAPLAN regime
and flag a return to student-centred assessment.

“The best form of assessment is the informed judgement of the teacher and it must be closely linked to teaching and learning that’s taking place in the classroom,” Haythorpe says.

“We’d caution any government against going ahead with NAPLAN Online next year,” she adds.

In short

  • NAPLAN Online 2018 trial revealed a gulf between schools.
  • International experts say the results should be discarded.
  • The vast majority of teachers say the test is useless as a classroom tool.

By Nic Barnard

This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Summer 2018.