NAPLAN's unintended consequences mean children's learning is suffering

Nicky Dulfer, Suzanne Rice and John Polesel

The Whitlam Institute and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education have today released the results of a major research study into the impact of the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) on school programs, student health and wellbeing, teaching approaches and curriculum. Over 8000 teachers and school leaders from all states and territories were surveyed for this research, the results of which raise significant questions about the impact NAPLAN is having within our schools.

Any large-scale testing regime like NAPLAN is likely to produce additional flow-on effects within schools, and the relative newness of NAPLAN means there has been little data on its impact available to date. This is the first national study to provide such data.

First, our research strongly suggests a major impact on curriculum and teaching – for example, 46 percent of our teachers reported they were running practice NAPLAN sessions with students at least once a week for several months before the actual tests take place. (Unsurprisingly, teachers also reported that many students became very bored with this.) It is no surprise then, that most teachers also believed NAPLAN preparation takes up significant time in an already crowded curriculum, and has led to some subjects being viewed as less important and therefore given less teaching time.

Over half of teachers surveyed also felt that NAPLAN affected the way and the content they teach. NAPLAN appears to be having strong and unwarranted distorting effects on the curriculum, narrowing its breadth, altering teaching practices and constraining children’s exposure to non-tested areas.

Second, our research indicates that teachers and school leaders believe that at a school level, weaker than expected NAPLAN results can have a strong negative impact on the school’s reputation in the local community and the media, making it harder to attract new students and staff and demoralising students.

Third, the results suggest a significant impact on student wellbeing. Almost ninety percent of teachers reported students talking of feeling stressed prior to NAPLAN, and over eighty percent reported some students as concerned that they were too ‘dumb’ to undertake the tests. Significant numbers reported students suffering symptoms of stress such as sickness, crying, or sleeplessness prior to NAPLAN.

The investments in time and resources to run the NAPLAN are substantial: every year, over one million students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 sit tests in numeracy, writing, grammar, punctuation and reading. Governments and systems seek a range of benefits in making this type of investment in national standardised testing – greater capacity to identify a school that could be struggling, a mechanism for targeting funding to need with greater accuracy, or a means of assessing the efficacy of reform initiatives.

While there is no doubt that NAPLAN can provide schools and systems with useful information, the results of our research raise the question as to whether, in the case of NAPLAN, the tail is wagging the dog.

It is time to open up the debate about national testing and our schools. Are there other ways this data can be collected without generating the negative impacts reported in our research? How can we ensure school accountability without pushing schools towards a narrow focus on test technique and a relegation of untested subjects to the fringes of the curriculum? Are the negative effects of the testing balanced by the benefits and if not, how might this be addressed?

Further, our study raises questions as to the use of the results – by parents, teachers, schools, and in particular, by systems and governments. The intense focus on the results and the ways in which this is shaping teaching and affecting student wellbeing suggests there is an unhealthy lack of community knowledge about the limitations and legitimate uses of such data. The subsequent effects are that invalid judgements may be made about the effectiveness or otherwise of a particular school or even a teacher.

Literacy and numeracy skills are at the core of a sound education, and it is right to ensure schools teach them well and thoroughly. There are ways in which this can be done creatively and engagingly, without marginalising our children’s experiences of the joys and benefits of music, languages or art.

Weekly test practices for months on end are not one of those ways – we must find something better, for schools’ sake, for teachers’ sake and most importantly, for children’s sake.