NAPLAN Tests - why they are necessary.

Every year Australian school children in years 3,5,7 and 9 take their NAPLAN tests.

"NAPLAN is an annual assessment for all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. It tests the types of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, in reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy. The assessments are undertaken nationwide, every year in the second full week in May."

My understanding is that the tests are supposed to highlight problem areas for teachers and schools, and show where extra work is needed to bring the students up to standard. But do they actually do this?

This is the first year one of my children will be taking part in these tests. At school for the past term, the focus in her classroom has been strongly on preparing for these tests, and practising the skills necessary for them. It has been a learning curve for both my daughter, who has been introduced to many new concepts and problems, but also for myself and my husband, as we have gained a clearer understanding of what is expected (in terms of the Australian National Curriculum) of our children’s ability in numeracy and literacy at this age.

There is a lot of debate about whether these NAPLAN tests (which were introduced in 2008), and equivalent tests in other countries such as the SAT tests in the UK, are truly beneficial to the students. To have to sit ‘exams’ at the age of seven may put unnecessary stress on children so young, and the end results are largely used to rank schools – which is not particularly helpful to the individual children sitting the tests.
But is a ranking of schools not a valuable and perhaps necessary thing, as with all aspects of life?

While researching this article, I found a ranking for Australian education in worldwide terms:
“The Programme for International Student Assessment(PISA) 2006 evaluation ranked the Australian education system as 6th for Reading, 8th for Science and 13th for Mathematics, on a worldwide scale including 56 countries.”

To me, seeing these results, I would think that our chief educators and governments would have seen these statistics, and be using them to find ways to improve our ranking. What are the countries above us on the list doing differently to us in terms of education? And how can we learn from them, to in turn provide our children with the best education and opportunities we can? So they can be prepared for life worldwide, not just within Australia.

We all want to know how we compare to others – there are surveys that show us the most liveable city or country in the world and we are proud if our city or country is highly ranked. We all cheer when our local sports team wins, we award prizes, certificates, trophies and medals to those who rank the highest in all aspects of life. High achievements should be celebrated, praised and strived for. Why not start with school test rankings? Is that so different?

As I have been discovering NAPLAN’s meaning, tests and history this year, I naturally wanted to see some results. I looked up the national results from 2010, and when I found my daughter’s school on the list, I looked at the results, and they seemed like decent numbers but they didn’t mean anything particular to me. So, to put them into some kind of perspective, I then checked other local schools in the area to see their comparative results. We all compare, and I believe that if we compare favourably, then we are happy, but if we don’t, then we should question why, and how we can change that. NAPLAN tests provide parents, and schools with this opportunity so we can all strive to better ourselves.

I recently read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography. He tells of his thorough and impressive education, in the hands of many highly trained and qualified people, but he also laments the fact that he was educated alone, with no classmates to compare himself and his abilities to. He said the thought this put him at a certain disadvantage, as he did not have the opportunity to use classmates abilities and results as a motivator to study harder and better himself.

There are stories which circulate each year of teachers allowing students extra time for the tests, in order to help them and so in turn, boost their class and school results. There are even murmurings of financial bonuses for teachers whose students perform well on these tests.

There are also stories of students being asked not to attend school on the days of the test, so as not to bring the school average results down.

If this truly happens, then it is basically a form of ‘cheating’ on the part of the teachers and the schools. I do not doubt there are cases where this does happen, as in all aspects of life. Everyone wants the best results, and some people will go to extreme lengths to attain these; cheating, lying and even law breaking. Of course this is wrong, and should not happen, but it is not in itself an argument against the NAPLAN tests themselves. People cheat on all kinds of tests, but it doesn’t mean the test is at fault – only the person who cheats.

Some parents have decided to tell their children to boycott the tests. For example, at one school in Queensland, the principle sent letters home to parents giving them the option of removing their kids from the NAPLAN tests and having them attend regular classes instead.

The principle of this school believes that, ‘testing students on a yet to be implemented national curriculum was one of the many flaws of NAPLAN’. But surely, a national curriculum, a national standard of education, is something that we desire? We want to know that our children in all states are being provided with the same level of education. There should not be educational advantages to the locations where we live. Each child is entitled to the same quality of education regardless of the state they reside in.
Is the NAPLAN test, not a useful tool in providing a national curriculum; a benchmark upon which to base the curriculum upon – to try to bring all states into line with each other? How else can we compare where everyone is now, to see what needs to be changed?

Personally, I believe the NAPLAN tests are a great opportunity for our kids. Seven may seem young for formal ‘exams’ but tests and forms are part of everyday life, and it is something that should be taught. If children are introduced to this kind of thing at a young age, then perhaps it will mean that tests and exams become less of a stressful event, and a more everyday thing that students don’t get so worked up about.

Some parents and teachers feel that spending so much time preparing for these tests, takes away from valuable learning time in school. They believe time which could be better spent learning skills other than those used for the tests. But surely, the whole point is that these tests are checking that students have necessary skills for their particular age group, in the fundamental subjects of numeracy and literacy? If they need to spend time brushing up on, or indeed learning these skills before the test then does that not suggest the tests are having the desired effect, and encouraging schools and teachers to bring all students up to a standard level of education?

Debate over educational methods, teaching and testing is both important and valuable to ensure it is constantly reviewed and revised to provide the best for our children. This week will see a new group of students begin on their journey through the exams of their academic life. Let’s encourage their progress and look forward to the results which will hopefully bring about change and improvements in education in schools and indeed within the whole of Australia.

Are your children doing NAPLAN or an equivalent this year? How you do feel about these tests?

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