Naplan hits headlines

This article headlined in my school newsletter this week and I have invited comments.

Unless you are a teacher or parent of student in Years 3, 5, 7 or 9 you may switch off when reading a newspaper headline with the word NAPLAN, which is short for the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy.

I don’t blame you and in fact an educational test of and by itself wouldn’t be considered newsworthy unless the results are what’s called “high stakes” in the education industry. Before exploring what high stakes might hold for us lets briefly examine (excuse the pun) what the headlines around the country are saying two weeks out from the event:

Brisbane Courier Mail: Hands up who thinks we teach our students that cheats thrive as NAPLAN prospers?

Written by a year 9 teacher: “I AM a NAPLAN cheat. Yes, that’s right. I am a teacher and a cheat. How I cheat is that I am preparing my Year 9 students for NAPLAN. I am drilling them on their punctuation, homophones, paragraphing and syntax. Oh, I forgot to mention, we have had to suspend the teaching of Romeo and Juliet, because NAPLAN is more important. You see my students won’t be tested against their appreciation of English literature and Shakespeare.”

News.com: National crackdown on national assessment program literacy and numeracy classroom cheats.

“SCHOOL teachers have been banned from coaching students for the national literacy and numeracy tests and classroom security will be tightened under a major crackdown against cheating. Teachers have been accused of helping students gain an advantage during tests by giving verbal prompts and notes to change answers. At a government school a parent complained there was a “strong similarity” between spelling words in a Naplan language test and words in the spelling list students had practised a week earlier.”

The Advertiser (in Adelaide) Principals and teachers banned from coaching NAPLAN tests. 

“For the first time schools have not been told in advance of the writing genre — narrative or persuasive — that will be tested preventing teachers from spending months coaching and preparing students.”

The Age (in Melbourne) Naplan results show public private gulf

“The difference in academic performance between state and independent schools grows wider as students progress into high school, a Fairfax Media analysis shows.”

I attended the Year 3 curriculum planning meeting this week where teachers were discussing NAPLAN or as it’s called by some NAPALM. Teachers already have quite detailed assessments pinpointing students academic needs in Literacy and Numeracy and have spent some time over the past 2 weeks developing a curriculum to match. Some of this has to be put on hold now like the year 9 teacher said in the Brisbane Courier Mail as they prepare students for these tests. By prepare we are talking about teaching children the test genre language – which simply means how to read test questions pinpointing the important words to focus on or understanding what the question is really asking.

Do we spend months preparing students for exams – No! I read in similar exam situations in Australia and countries around the world teachers spending months providing and marking many practice exams – for what – to pass the test for the results are used in high stakes ways (entry into prestigious schools or universities, parents using the information to decide school entry options and teachers effectiveness being measured on the results of the tests).

So what happens to the planned curriculum? In most cases the skills and understandings students actually need to learn and progress are put on hold while we prepare for and then supervise these high stakes tests. In worst case scenarios the curriculum is actually narrowed as Arts, Music, Other Languages and Physical Education classes are cut or cancelled to make time for test preparation. In my travels to schools across Victoria and in overseas countries I have seen this narrowing of curriculum effects first hand. Is that what we are seeking?

Some other issues out of school also arise e.g. Parents paying tutors for exam preparation after school, home pressures to do well causing a rise in student anxieties and the purchase of supplements and medications to deal with exam pressures. These are very real situations both here in Melbourne, across Australia and around the world.

There are other ways to assess student progress often in more helpful ways for both teachers and students. You may recall our Data Wise project, which in collaboration with Harvard University, we are using to implement many of these more informative ways to collect and use in more timely ways data to help young people learn. If you are a parent and want further information please go to: NAPLAN.

If you would like to express an opinion please go to my blog where I’ll paste this newsletter article for discussion: www.mwalker.com.au.

The tests are on May 13,14 and 15.