NAPLAN is evil

How, in just a sniff of time in just one lecture, am I going to be able to convey to my preservice teachers all of the evil in schooling that has come from NAPLAN testing?

I think I’ll start with this news article from today:

Parents of about 12 students in Year Nine at Miami State High School were asked last week to sign a waiver so their children did not sit the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy) tests, to avoid stressing the teenagers.

The parents of one student who refused to withdraw their son were told they were the only ones not to sign the form, out of those contacted by the school .

When Alexandra Fox demanded her son Mathew, 13, sit the NAPLAN tests, she was told that Mathew was quite good at English so could sit those tests, but he was not as strong in maths so she should sign the waiver for those tests.

Mathew’s father, Anthony Jarrah, said his son had no medical condition or diagnosed learning difficulty that would require his exemption from the tests.

“He’s a normal kid, has no learning difficulties or anything. He’s just one of those kids who takes a bit longer to grasp things,” he said. “They’re not educating kids, they’re not doing their best.

“He’s already 13 and it’s not that long before he’s out of school. All they want to do is to hide him all through high school like they did in primary, then once he leaves school he’s not their problem anymore.”

(Ferrari, ‘School uges students to skip tests’ in The Australian, March 11, 2011)

Is it time yet to make the call?   Seriously, the (yes, very valid, very real ‘if done properly’) diagnostic function of the NAPLAN test is being compromised so much here.

Your performance will only make our school look bad.

What a delightful message to send to the students of today.


  1. #1 by Hayden Walker on April 12, 2011 - 4:06 pm

    Just a link to something my old school is organising for people on the south-side of brisbane. The principal of the school has spoken out to the media on one of those current affairs shows a couple of years back but is now getting people together to have a bigger view about the program.

  2. #2 by TroyMartin on April 13, 2011 - 8:55 pm

    NAPLAN should have a disclaimer: this test does not assess innovation, collaboration, verbal or aural or visual or digital literacy, nor problem solving…

  3. #3 by Zebra on April 14, 2011 - 10:28 am

    It seems to me that in your anecdote, you’re confusing the evilness of some teachers administering NAPLAN with the evilness of NAPLAN itself.

    • #4 by kmcg2375 on April 16, 2011 - 5:02 pm

      Really? I tried specifically not to:
      ‘all of the evil in schooling that has come from NAPLAN testing”
      I should have been a little clearer, I guess – cheers.

  4. #5 by Zebra on April 18, 2011 - 10:18 pm

    I get the point you’re making. But your article title is lacking a bit of nuance perhaps :).
    But seriously – there seems to me a fundamental property of human nature that if at any time you introduce a performance metric, people will endeavor to optimise the metric rather than the performance. It’s not just teachers, I
    Does this mean that we simply should not use performance metrics at all? Can we never rely on the professionalism and integrity of people

  5. #6 by Zebra on April 18, 2011 - 10:30 pm

    I get the point you’re making. But your article title is lacking a bit of the nuance perhaps 🙂

    But seriously – there seems to me a fundamental property of human nature that if at any time you introduce a performance metric, people will endeavor to optimise the metric rather than the performance. It’s not just teachers, I work in the private sector and the same thing happens with any attempt to set objective measures of individual or corporate performance.

    Does this mean that we simply should not use performance metrics at all? Can we never rely on the professionalism and integrity of people? In some ways it makes me even sadder to see it happen in schools rather than out in the business world.

    I don’t suppose there is any statistical data to show how frequently such unethical and unprincipled behaviour happens? Is it naive to assume that for every instance where there is such blatant abuse, there are many more teachers who are able let NAPLAN results just reflect the actual performance of their students and class?

    (sorry – about the double posting – I hit a wrong key..)

  6. #7 by kmcg2375 on April 19, 2011 - 10:49 am

    “Does this mean that we simply should not use performance metrics at all?”
    Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Only because I don’t have an informed stance on the issue – it’s quite possible that my answer would be ‘yes’, I’m not sure. I of course understand the importance of assessment, but it’s terms like ‘performance metrics’ that nag at me. When I hear terms like that I automatically wonder – why ‘performance’ and not ‘growth’? What about the things I want to assess that can’t easily be ‘measured’?

    One thing I do believe is that the operational aspect of literacy – the actual code breaking and comprehension of lanague – is only one aspect of literacy. There are important aspects of language and literacy that just aren’t tested by NAPLAN. Fair enough if that’s all you want to test, I’m not advocating that we cram more in. But I do think it sucks that we put so much credence is something that purports to be a measure of Literacy, when really it is only a measure of bits of literate practice. If they called it the ‘National Assessment of the bits of literacy and numeracy that you need to get a job and stay off the dole” then I’d be happier. Because let’s face it, that’s what it is. And hey, there’s a social role being played there…but at what cost? And is there a better way?

  7. #8 by kmcg2375 on April 19, 2011 - 11:02 am

    I also take your point about it being possibly only a very small minority of schools showing a lack of integrity here. And I would love to see some large scale research done, to get a sense of the various ways that teachers actually use the NAPLAN data for the purposes of improving the literacy of a specific student.

    But I do urge you to see this minority of blantant disregard for student welfare and result validity as symptomatic of a much bigger, much more silent and insidious set of practices and beliefs. And in my mind there is not stopping any of it as long as the results continue to be made public. Not ever. Because by making those results public, the focus of NAPLAN has moved entirely away from an individual student focus, to a focus on overall school improvement. Not just for ‘bad’ reasons – shouldn’t schools be trying to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs by any means necessary? But of course! But the image that most parents have of teachers lovingly dissecting each students results to find out more about them and plan accordingly…well, it’s a nice image.

    Perhaps in Primary school contexts, where the teacher deals with 30 students, it might be more like that. In high schools, however, teachers deal with anywhere up to about 130 students across five classes. So I suppose we really should start making distinctions between those two sites and the different experiences that teachers are having ibn them respectively.

  8. #9 by Deb on April 22, 2011 - 4:08 pm

    Hi Kelli,
    I came across your post after using the google search “parents refusing naplan”… as I find myself in this tortured swirl of indecision about the legal requirement to submit my son to the NAPLAN tests this year – he is in Year 5 in NSW.
    As a high school teacher myself, it has not been until this year that any supervisor has instructed me to access the NAPLAN results and investigate how my planning can be informed by these results… and I wonder why it is that it has taken that long for Principals to find a use for NAPLAN results – or are they just responding to pressure from above to identify students who need “fixing” so that “value adding” can be achieved in this year’s numbers?
    My son’s completion of NAPLAN in Year 3 meant absolutely nothing. His results were in that little arrow at the top of the scale for all the testing. Yet he has not been identified for differentiated curriculum nor provided with stimulus or extention in school – he’s just a well behaved kid who is not catered to in the classroom. Our own psychometric testing has revealed his extra-ordinary verbal reasoning abilities and yet even supplying this information to his school has made no change to what he is offered in order to engage him! It is no wonder he views school as somewhere he has to endure rather than enjoy!
    So why should I submit him to NAPLAN this year? What possible use is it to him? If his results are fabulous like Year 3 then I don’t know if that is school or natural ability. If his results are less than perfect then his school will just label him as “not using his potential” when it is they that are not participating in engaging his potential anyway!
    If only I could afford to home school! Then I’d be done with all the politics and the time wasting and the disengagement, and he would be able to explore and find his passion for learning and pursue it unfettered from the constraints of the educational bureaucracy that is labelled an education in the NSW public school system these days!
    Apologies if my despondency is showing…

    • #10 by kmcg2375 on May 11, 2011 - 1:14 pm

      Thank you so much for this response Deb. I mean, I wish you didn’t have cause to write it, but thanks!
      This is the other end of the spectrum of problems arising from NAPLAN, in my opinion. All my experience so far has been that the results of NAPLAN only tend to stimulate remedial programs, very rarely extension ones. In both schools I have worked the staff development around NAPLAN results involved getting to know the kids who ‘failed’ it and making sure they had extra support. Whole booklets have been generated containing individual profiles of such children. But not so much for the one’s who excelled.

      What’s equally as bad, is the plight of the majority of students who fall in the middle of that great big bell curve. For what the NSW government (and othes??) have forced us to come to categorise as ‘C’ students, I have serious doubts that their diagnostic NAPLAN ‘data’ is used for programming much at all. Happy to be contradicted on this one folks…would love to hear positive stories!!

      • #11 by Rebecca Wolkenstein on October 22, 2011 - 8:41 am

        Deb and Kelli, you have just given me the most fantastic idea! I have a three week practicum (as an aide) coming up at the local primary school. The school has 10 aides, but only one is for non-special-needs. So I imagine she is going to be putting me to use. I could propose that one of us could work with the children who could benefit from an extension program. I wonder how that will go over? They may object as the extension program might end when I leave, leaving the parents wondering why it isn’t going to continue…

      • #12 by debhogg on October 22, 2011 - 9:09 am

        Hi Kelli and Rebecca
        I think we are at the limit of the levels of comment responses so this comment will probably appear in the wrong spot… but you’ll figure it out…
        Great idea, Rebecca! It will be really interesting to see what the response is at the school you are visiting – and to find out what they have in place to differentiate curriculum for their students. I had a parent say to me the other day, “They are not catering for my child’s needs either but it must be really difficult to do that in a large classroom of kids!” My response was… “No! That is the job!” There are so many options for catering for the individual needs of students yet many schools just don’t bother… hopefully the one you are visiting will be open to a discussion.
        Regards, Deb

  9. #13 by scott on May 1, 2011 - 8:03 pm

    Is there a problem with casting the school administrators or teachers behaviour as ‘unethical’ and ‘unprincipled’? Might it be possible to recast this behaviour as some kind of ‘principled’ response to a larger policy environment that school administrators and teachers find themselves working within and trying to understand? Sure it might be seen as playing the system or an undermining of the tests themselves, but I’m wondering if we might see it as legitimate in the minds of overworked, pressurised and deperate teachers who see the goal posts change all the time and might feel helpless to do much else. There might be lots they can do, but I’d want to be a little careful about demonising them right out of the gate.

    • #14 by kmcg2375 on May 11, 2011 - 1:03 pm

      I don’t know Scott. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to think of something nice to say. I’d like to say I feel mature enough about this issue to ‘recast the behaviour as a principled response’ to the policy environment, but I just don’t agree.

      Call be bolshie, but I think that administrators are getting enough credit from me already. It’s all I can do to put myself in their shoes and understand
      a) the pressure coming from above to tow the line, and
      b) their desire to keep collecting a set of data that they genuinely do see as valuable for improving learning and teaching in their school

      But I draw the line at trying to understand an administrator or teacher’s perspective when they ask a kid to stay home from a diagnostic test. If it really has gotten so bad that this is really seen as protecting the student’s (and/or students’) welfre, then perhaps it’s time to start protesting against NAPLAN and MySchool like the rest of us…?

      I don’t mean to ‘demonise’ anyone, but I guess I do intend my words to be heard as a clear wake up call. There are many others, just like me, who do not see much of this process as being ‘principled’. At all. And we are just about outta patience and delicate words!

  10. #15 by avie on October 19, 2011 - 12:22 pm

    Of course, we (students AND teacher) could ALL stay home the whole wretched NAPLAN week 🙂 🙂 🙂

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