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Senator Wright speaks on NAPLAN Testing

Question
Penny Wright 14 May 2013

This week we have the sixth year of testing under the National Assessment Program—Literacy and Numeracy, or NAPLAN, as it is known. There are increasing concerns being voiced by parents, teachers and academics that the test results are being misused in a way that is actually distracting from learning. If that is the case—that a program ostensibly established to enhance learning outcomes is detrimental to learning—then the government and all of us should be worried.

NAPLAN was introduced in 2008 to obtain information on student performance and to highlight the students most in need of development. Even at the time, there was, and there since has been, a great deal of contention as to whether the tests are appropriate, what they are actually measuring and how the results of the tests are being used. Good data about student achievement is important, of course, and there are many who say that testing like NAPLAN provides that data. Others say that it is important to be sure that the data is actually good, that it reliably measures the skills that need to be measured and that it is interpreted in context. NAPLAN tests, for instance, are a snapshot in time on one particular day. But after the government began to report the NAPLAN results of individual schools on the My School website, the data has been increasingly used to compare schools, often unfairly, and it is clear that an unhealthy level of competition has been leading to increasingly perverse consequences.

In a Melbourne university study last year, 73 per cent of the teachers who responded to a survey reported that the purpose of NAPLAN was to rank schools. Irrespective of whether that is the original or stated aim of NAPLAN, it may well be that this common perception is based on the de facto situation that they are faced with— that schools and teachers are actually being compared according to NAPLAN results—in which case their perception is accurate. As a result, of course, and understandably, some of them respond by teaching to the test. Thirty-nine per cent reported doing this weekly, and of course there are consequent risks of boring students, narrowing the curriculum because they are not teaching other subjects or not spending as much time on other subjects, and reflecting to the children they are teaching week after week the high-stakes nature of the testing.

There have been instances of cheating in schools, with inappropriate assistance being given to some children, marks or answers being changed and children being discouraged from participating. Indeed, in my own state of South Australia, half of all the substantiated cheating incidents from the last round of testing occurred. The kinds of incidents I am talking about are cases where pressure was placed on parents to withdraw their child from testing and inappropriate assistance was given to students. Unfortunately, this reflects the unhealthy pressure felt by schools and teachers.

Most recently, we have seen the market respond to the anxiety and pressure caused by NAPLAN tests, with NAPLAN workbooks hitting the bestseller lists and Dymocks reporting sales doubling in the last 12 months, intensive tutoring of young children—and we have even seen the fish oil salespeople come out to market dietary supplements to parents, playing on their anxieties and their fears. Despite these clear and growing concerns, Minister Garrett insists consistently on dismissing them, saying that parents and students just should not be worried. The trouble is they are, and the evidence is clear that it is increasing.

So, after five years of NAPLAN testing and increasing concern from parents, teachers and academics, it is my view, as Australian Greens spokesperson on schools and education, that we need to take stock. We now need to look at the evidence to see if NAPLAN is in fact doing what it was intended to do, whether it is doing it as effectively as possible and whether it is doing it without harmful consequences on students and their learning. That is why I will be moving for an inquiry to look at the evidence that is available and to look at the international best practice in regard to this kind of testing, and I would certainly hope that the old parties will support that call for a Senate inquiry.

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