NAPLAN: Results won't improve overnight

PETAA President Robyn Cox responds to commentary about the 2016 NAPLAN results

Robyn CoxNAPLAN is slowly becoming just one of the things that learners do during their school careers — like the annual athletics carnival, a part of the fabric of school life.

It has a relatively short history in the Australian education psyche — and I believe a lot of schools, teachers and perhaps even systems hoped that if we put up with it long enough it would disappear.

Just on Tuesday one of my teaching students said, ‘I wish it would just go away!’

I told her, in my opinion, NAPLAN was here to stay. It will change and develop but it will not go away.

Back in 2008, school leaders, teachers, parents and most of all students had little idea of how the NAPLAN process would run, but last year we saw the first cohort of students who took the test in Year 3 take the Year 9 test.

The annual reporting of the NAPLAN data, coupled with the comprehensive reports to parents and detailed data provided to schools, is a positive outcome for the education system. It has become embedded in our school lives and little by little we are starting to let go of the stress associated with the test.

The test withdrawal rate has remained steady now for some years, so perhaps parents are not so worried any more. They may even be finding the diagnostic aspects of the results coming home useful when they’re thinking about their child’s strengths and weaknesses.

But where we get a hiccup is the natural desire for constant testing to show results on the rise. There is a supposition that if we spend more money and use evidence-based practice the results have got to rise.

But we are only now settling into the culture around a national testing system at years 3 and 5 and years 7 and 9. Time may be what is needed to see improved results across the state.

Teachers will have a central role in this improvement and with school leaders the NSW Department of Education is moving forward in school-level planning for literacy teaching.

Professional learning for teachers in literacy in schools is now supported on a school needs basis and this is proving successful. Initial teacher education reforms and literacy tests for teaching graduates will ensure success as we move forward.

More focus on teacher professional training in knowledge about language, teaching strategies in reading and a renewed focus on teaching spelling is under way, not just for the purpose of NAPLAN.

The data available on My School for every school in the nation also has not been as controversial as some suggested it may be. Individual schools can track their results and respond to the needs of their students , tailoring their curriculum.

The remaining question is about writing. Problems associated with assessment of writing in a one-off test are profound. Criteria used to assess the piece, the prompts and requirements of a writer in orchestrating skills learnt over years of literacy education in that one-shot testing moment are enormous. But prior to NAPLAN in 2008 we didn’t have a place to start in considering writing at a national level.

National testing is only one component of how we measure the success of the education system and the children it is teaching. Eight years isn’t long enough to judge the success of such a major change.

Dr Robyn Cox is associate professor literacy education at the Australian Catholic University and president of the Primary English Teaching Association Australia.