NAPLAN: Loathe it or love it – How can you best prepare your child for this testing process?
Since its inception, there has been much debate about the usefulness and validity of NAPLAN testing in Australia.
To learn more about the debate, read on. Otherwise, click the link to go directly to the strategies page
On one hand, experts argue that it puts too much pressure on students and the curriculum, while only providing a distorted view of student achievement.
Dr Pasi Sahlberg is a renowned author and educator from Finland, a country which is recognised internationally as one of the more successful and innovative education systems. He is currently a professor of educational policy at UNSW and has just finished a research tour of Australian schools.
In a recent interview with The Guardian1, Dr Sahlberg expressed the following concerns:
“… in their pursuit for results, Australian politicians have placed too much emphasis on competition between schools and students, making education ‘too high stakes’…
If the main goal is to raise Australian children’s scores in both Pisa tests and Naplan, more direct instruction has meant that play, and even subjects such as the arts, are not on the agenda as they used to be,” he says.
“The problem is that wherever standardised tests are running the show it narrows the curriculum and it kind of changes the whole role and meaning of going to school from general useful learning into doing well in two or three subjects. And it often makes teaching and learning very boring when the purpose is to figure out the right answer to a test.”
In the same article, it was noted that
“This year’s Naplan results found that, a decade since testing began, the average reading and numeracy skills of Australian primary school students has improved only marginally, while writing skills went backwards.”
Sahlberg agrees that governments need a way to monitor and measure student progress but is critical of “ the way the test is conducted and the use of the data as a sort of school shopping guide for parents on the My School website.”
On the other hand, ACARA CEO Robert Randall, in an interview in Education Matters2, asserted that NAPLAN provides important data “…used for forward planning, allocating support and resources and tracking the progress and achievements of individual students, as well as an entire group of students, over the course of their educational journey.”
“NAPLAN tests are constructed to give students an opportunity to demonstrate skills they have learned over time through the school curriculum, and NAPLAN test days should be treated as just another routine event on the school calendar,” he says.
In the same article, however, Dr Bronwyn Hinz, Policy Fellow at the Mitchell Institute, Victoria University expressed her concern about the “overemphasis” placed on the test results.
“NAPLAN is a point-in-time test of a just a few, albeit important – subjects which can be compared to the same data collected at other times and around Australia, to help work out, among other things and alongside other data, the effects of different education programs and policies, and the places where additional resources could make the greatest impact.
“NAPLAN does not replace the much deeper, more sophisticated and more frequent formative or summative assessments of student learning done by school teachers, nor does it provide judgement on how “good” a student, teacher or school might be,” Dr Hinz says.
“However, some schools and families add their own high stakes to it, and overemphasise or misunderstand it.”
(If you want to read more about this debate, follow the links at the end of the article.)
As a teacher, I hold my own views about NAPLAN and standardized testing in general, but they are not relevant here. The reality is, love it or loathe it, NAPLAN is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
So how can you, as a parent, support your child to have the most productive experience of NAPLAN.
- Play it down
As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest concerns is the high degree of importance many parents place on NAPLAN results. Their anxiety consequently passes down to the students. NAPLAN is a
“… point-in-time test of a just a few, albeit important – subjects which can be compared to the same data collected at other times…” Dr Bronwyn Hinz
It is not an overall measure of your child’s abilities, intelligence and achievements. For that week in May, it is simply a comparative measure to help schools, education administrators and governments work out distribution of (increasingly limited) resources. It also provides an opportunity for students and parents to monitor individual growth and progress from previous years. But it is not the only measure and it should always be considered in the context of all the formal and informal feedback available about your child. These should also include your own observations as parents.
It should never be used by parents to compare their child with other students. Every child is unique. They start school with different strengths and abilities, develop and grow at different rates, learn in different ways and have varying interests and passions. NAPLAN simply takes two important skill areas and assesses your child’s current level of development. Are they growing and developing in Numeracy and Literacy testing? Has their growth accelerated or is it slowing down? Please note my emphasis of the word ‘testing’. Most people are aware that some students perform well under test conditions, while others do not respond well to the pressure of time limited, silent, written demonstration of their skills. Think back to your own experiences at school and work.
Make it clear to your child that you are not anxious about it and that you are not placing great importance on the outcome.
- Reframe the idea of NAPLAN for your children.
Having de-emphasized its importance, turn it into a fun challenge. Today’s children understand and love video games, where the basic premise is to try to reach the next level, through experimentation, risk-taking, determination and guesswork. Encourage your child to see NAPLAN as the same – each test as a challenge to see whether they have progressed to a higher level. It does not matter about where the other kids finish. Everyone player knows that there are ‘masters’ of the video game, much better than themselves, but that does not discourage them from trying to improve, nor takes away the enjoyment. So, it should be the same with NAPLAN.
- Help them understand how it is structured.
To play any game, it is always important to understand the general principles. Make sure that you and your child understand how NAPLAN works. As it is a multi-level ‘game’, there will be some easy questions, lots of more complex but still familiar tasks, and then the really tricky and unfamiliar challenges, designed to see who is ready to move to the next level. Explain to your child that they can expect to come across some questions that they, as yet, have no idea about solving or completing. That is to be expected. It is okay, and perfectly valid, to not know some answers.
Just like the video game, they may not yet have the skill to attempt that particular task. Remind them that it is okay to skip a task rather than stress or panic about it. And it is also okay to guess. (It is amazing how often our ‘wild’ guesses are correct – the solution is often locked away somewhere in our brain). If your child understands that they are not expected to know everything, they will approach the other tasks with more confidence and are then more likely to perform to their best ability. This is an important strategy for those students who generally become anxious or freeze in tests.
- Recognition and familiarity.
In video games, familiarity with any level is the key. Players spend much time just exploring the features of each level, identifying and decoding clues and recognising markers, landmarks and pathways. Similarly, with NAPLAN, familiarity with the format of the tests, the types of questions and their structures is important. Having the freedom of ‘playing’ at that level to understand the clues, will help your child be more relaxed, confident and curious, as they approach test week.
- Take the initiative early
- Schools generally prepare students for NAPLAN but unfortunately this preparation can be performance driven and anxiety and tension can be generated. Make sure you are aware of how this ‘preparation’ is being presented in your child’s class, and talk to the teacher or the principal if you believe it is creating a negative or anxious environment.
- There are many NAPLAN style resources available for families to purchase. Sit down with your kids and ‘’play’ together, exploring and decoding the puzzles and challenges. They are all just puzzles and challenges!
- If you do not feel confident in doing this, then engage a tutor or mentor who has experience in counselling students to face challenges in a positive and motivated way.
Beware of the large commercial entities providing intensive NAPLAN preparation – check to ensure that their methods are appropriate and do not simply perpetuate the pressure of competing to be the best.
Very few people can ever be ‘the best’, by its definition, instead we should all work on being ‘the best we can be’.
For more information about mentoring services I can provide for your child, please follow the link below.
The Learning Circle mentoring
1 The Guardian interview with Dr Pasi Sahlberg
2 Education Matters – The Pros and Cons of Naplan
Dr Pasi Sahlberg’s award-winning book : Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland