National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy

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Sign announcing NAPLAN tests, Greenbank State School, 2014

The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is a battery of tests administered annually to Australian students (ACARA 2010a). These standardised tests assess students' reading, writing, language (spelling, grammar and punctuation) and numeracy and are administered by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (ACARA 2010a). The ACARA (ACARA 2010a) website states that the NAPLAN tests "broadly reflect aspects of literacy and numeracy common to curricula in all States and Territories" and that the test formats and questions are "chosen so that they are familiar to teachers and students across Australia". The tests are also designed to be carried out on the same days all across Australia in any given year (ACARA 2010b).

There has been a great deal of contention in the educational community as to whether the tests are appropriate, whether teachers are teaching as they normally would or teaching to the test, and what the results of the test are being used for.

The data obtained from the NAPLAN tests are collated and used to show all schools' average performance against other schools in the country on the Government My School website (Ferrari, 2010).

Background of NAPLAN[edit]

According to New South Wales Public Schools (DET NSW, n.d.) the NAPLAN tests, which commenced in 2008, were instigated after the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) determined that "national testing in literacy and numeracy would proceed for the full cohort of students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 from 2008 onward". The NAPLAN tests would be used to determine if students were performing either above, at or below the National Minimum Standard in the areas of reading, language conventions, writing and numeracy skills for their particular year level (NSW DET, n.d.).

According to ACARA (ACARA, 2010b) the main purpose of the NAPLAN tests is to measure whether literacy and numeracy skills and knowledge that provide the critical foundation for other learning and for their productive and rewarding participation in the community. The introduction of national literacy and numeracy tests in 2008 has provided consistency, comparability and transferability of information on students’ literacy and numeracy performance nationally.

In essence the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) influence brought about a series of tests to determine whether students being prepared for later life appropriately in the present day school system.

The relevance of a study of NAPLAN for pre-service primary teachers[edit]

An understanding of the NAPLAN tests provides pre-service teachers with an understanding of the importance of teaching well and to the curriculum in order to ensure that their students are achieving to a minimum standard, if not above it. Pre-service teachers not only need to be able to access curriculum documents that they can refer to guide their teaching but also a means of assessing the standards of their students against other students in their State and country as a whole. This allows them to guide not only what they are teaching but how well they are teaching.

Relevant stakeholders in NAPLAN[edit]

There are several stakeholders in the NAPLAN tests. The Primary stakeholders are students, parents and teachers.

According to a Parent's Brochure the NAPLAN test results will be used to assist students and parents in discussing student progress with teachers, identifying students who require "greater challenges or additional support", identifying teaching program strengths and weaknesses and allow for school program review and support" (ACARA, n.d.).

Analysis and evaluation of NAPLAN[edit]

The validity and reliability of NAPLAN[edit]

According to Dawson (2010b) "the validity of a test or measurement instrument is reflected in the extent to which the test or instrument measures the behaviour or performance which it is supposed to measure, allowing teachers to make appropriate decisions as a result" and that "reliability means consistency of the instrument in measuring whatever it measures. It is the degree to which an instrument will give similar results for the same individuals at different times".

ACARA (ACARA 2010c) claims in their MySchool Fact Sheet that "processes have been put in place to ensure that NAPLAN is a valid and reliable measurement of students' literacy and numeracy ability". It further goes on to state that "NAPLAN has a number of purposes including reporting national and jurisdictional achievements in literacy and numeracy as well as providing accurate and reliable measures of student and school performance. These purposes are carefully considered during the NAPLAN development process".

This however can bring up an issue related to the validity of the tests and should possibly require a re-wording of the website as NAPLAN is supposed to help guide, assist and develop student performance, not just measure and report on it. As far as the government is concerned this could constitute an invalid test. Fortunately the tests are used for the right purpose within schools themselves and as the VCAA (VCAA, 2004) points out that the NAPLAN Data Service identify areas of strength or weakness within a school or classroom. At the classroom level, the Item Analysis Report, the Writing Criteria Report and (for numeracy in particular) the Assessment Area Report provide powerful diagnostic information which can be used to complement school assessment and to inform the planning of teaching and learning programs.

Unfortunately the down side of NAPLAN can be see when teachers are teaching to the test rather than teaching to the curriculum as can be seen in Victoria where according to Perkins (2010) teachers have been told to "teach explicitly for the national tests that are the cornerstone of the Federal Government's controversial My School website". Once again this could make the NAPLAN an invalid test as it encourages teachers away from holistic curriculum to a certain extent. Teachers should therefore keep in mind that if they are teaching appropriately to the curriculum then the students ‘should’ have no trouble with their NAPLAN tests as the ACARA (ACARA 2010b) website points out when it states that "The best preparation schools can provide for students is teaching the curriculum as the tests reflect core elements of state and territory curricula".

NAPLAN is also valid in that "special provisions which typically will reflect the support normally provided in the classroom may be provided to students with disabilities or special needs (ACARA 2010b)".

The Validity and Reliability in Quality Assessment in relation to NAPLAN can be summed up by ACARA (ACARA 2010c) in that they use an equating process to "provide a high level of assurance as to the reliability of comparisons between years" and that this process ensures that "any test difference has been taken into account before making statements about one year's results compared to the next".

The flexibility and fairness of NAPLAN[edit]

Hart (2000) noted in relation to flexibility in assessment that "the most innovative, problem-based, constructivist and flexible curriculum can be brought to its knees by a three hour invigilated examination. Assessment needs to be based on competency rather than time, on achieving targets rather than normal distribution, on providing feedback as well as judgement".

Unfortunately in relation to the principle of Flexibility in Quality Assessment and NAPLAN the NAPLAN tests seem to fall down quite considerably. Not all students work at the same pace and some don't work well under test conditions.

On the point of fairness it is important not to just rate the fairness of the test itself but to also rate the procedure of giving the test as well. Apart from the fact that the test is given mid-year so not all learning may have been successfully completed as would be expected by the end of the year for that particular grade, Chilcott (2010) writes that Queensland Teachers Union president Steve Ryan said some schools "probably have devoted too much time to NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy)". He goes on to say that "What is happening here is we have an overemphasis on the importance of the NAPLAN tests; they are simply a test that measure the literacy and numeracy levels of students at one point in time and what has developed from the Federal Government is a regime that is over-rated".

This makes the procedure of giving the test unfair in that too much time is being spent on test preparation thereby neglecting other curriculum areas which are also important to the students.

Although the test itself is extremely fair in that all students perform the same test nationwide, it also does not seem to take into account the fact that students in schools don’t just comprise the average but also include the likes of special needs students. ACARA (ACARA 2010b) points out that "Students can be exempted from one or more NAPLAN tests if they have significant intellectual or functional disability or if they are from a non-English-speaking background and arrived in Australia less than one year before the tests". It is understood therefore that NAPLAN is designed to test Literacy and Numeracy levels in students considered to be normal (NSW DET, n.d.)

If the NAPLAN tests were to be completely fair to all students in the education system then they should cater for the likes of those students mentioned above and perhaps have a collation of data for them separate from those considered to be within the normal range of intellect. Instead of providing for a test that can be given to the likes of these students they are simply left out of the equation all together.

The data from NAPLAN, as previously mentioned, is collated onto the MySchool website. Bradbury (2010) wrote that Principal Larissa Treskin of the MySchool website’s top ranked school James Ruse Agricultural High School said "I really don’t know what the purpose of the [MySchool] website is". She continued "the only idea I have is to possibly help parents choose schools. However, most parents don’t have a choice and the website does not give an accurate picture of what schools do offer". Highly ranked school Baulkham Hills High School Principal Jeanne Bathgate added that the website was very unfair to comprehensive schools (Bradbury, 2010).

There is also the consideration to be given to the fact that selective schools can pick and choose which students attend their schools giving them unfair advantage in attaining higher scores in almost any national assessment and especially in NAPLAN. Baulkham Hills High School Principal Jeanne Bathgate further noted that "being a selective school, of course we would rank well, we have the top students attend the school. It can be expected" (Bradbury, 2010).

The authenticity of NAPLAN[edit]

Dawson (2010a) notes that Authentic Assessment "attempts to recreate the conditions under which an activity will occur" and has "greater emphasis is on what students can do, rather than on what they know".

As far as Authenticity is concerned in the NAPLAN Tests there are elements of real-world application and there are elements that are not real-world. In the 2010 Year Three NAPLAN Numeracy Test (ACARA, 2010d) for example, there are questions that can relate to real-world including the examples in figure one and two below.

Fig. 1. (ACARA, 2010d)

Fig. 2. (ACARA, 2010d)

The students can easily see the relevance of these two tasks and how they may have to complete them in the real world however figure three and four below are a little more obscure in relation to real-world application.

Fig. 3. (ACARA, 2010d)

Fig. 4. (ACARA, 2010d)

One of the important points to consider however with the NAPLAN tests is that, especially in relation to numeracy, not all areas can have immediately foreseeable real-world application however that does not necessarily mean that the questions are unimportant. For the most part however, the NAPLAN tests do seem to have quite a bit of real-world authenticity about them.

Availability of Past Tests and Results[edit]

The 2008, 2009, and 2010 tests were available from the National Assessment Program website, but have been removed, although archived copies are still available from The Wayback Machine. The 2011 tests were never available due to "copyright". The tests appear to have become more difficult over time, particularly from 2008 to 2009.

Schools receive detailed results as to how each student answered individual questions, but do not have access to what the questions were. Parents are only given general feedback as to which percentile band their children are in for each type of test.