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NAPLAN testing disguises illiteracy, says Labor MP

Students sitting the NAPLAN test.

Students sitting the NAPLAN test. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Newly minted Labor backbencher Alannah MacTiernan has hit out at the NAPLAN testing, saying it masks the true illiteracy rate in Australia.

"It does not seem too bad when we say 91.8 per cent of Western Australia's year 3 students achieved or exceeded the national benchmark for reading or 92.3 per cent exceeded the benchmark for spelling," the new MP for Perth wrote in an opinion piece published in The West Australian newspaper this weekend.

"That is until one learns what the national benchmarks are.

"To meet the 2013 national benchmark for reading, a year 3 student has to only answer eight out of 36 questions correctly. To meet the standard for spelling, only three correct words out of 25 words are required.  In 2011, one correct answer out of 25 was enough to get a student across the line."

But Rob Randall, chief executive of the national testing authority ACARA, said Ms MacTiernan was confusing benchmark descriptions of children's abilities with the minimum standards.

"While we appreciate the focus on standards, we would note that Ms MacTiernan confuses the notion of benchmarks or standards with the notion of how many items you need to get right to be placed in each of these bands."

Children's NAPLAN test results are divided into 10 "bands", which rank children into achievement levels.

"Only a few items are needed to judge whether a student is at the minimum standard," Mr Randall said.

"Other items in the test are used to tell how far beyond the minimum standard each student is at."

For example, if a child spelt only three words correctly in an English NAPLAN test, checking which words were spelt correctly would help markers identify children's strengths and weaknesses.

Ms MacTiernan, however, argues Australia needs to return to a "back to basics" approach to teaching, for example "explicit, highly-structured teaching of sounds, syllables and grammar".

"There have now been major investigations into the teaching of reading and writing by Australian, UK and US governments," she wrote.

"Each found unequivocally that this method of explicit, highly structured teaching of sounds, syllables and grammar is the most effective method of teaching fundamental literacy to all.

"For some reason in Australia, our educational leaders will not act on this."

85 comments

  • Yes, it is a shocking experience to find out that kids don't learn any grammar.
    However, until the system changes Australia will always lag behind. Here kids of all abilities are thrown into a melting pot of schools and classes. It means you always target the average with you teaching in front of the class. It means that kids with higher and lower abilities are disadvantaged. Kids also all do the same tests. So some come home and feel that they have underperformed when they only achieve 96%. Others will have done an excellent job with 40%. What a nonsense. Neither of these two kids have been properly tested. And why remind that one kid always that he is at the bottom of the hierarchy.
    I come from a system where there are different school types for different abilities.
    This means education can be better targeted at the level of the child.
    We really let our children down.

    Commenter
    plato
    Date and time
    November 09, 2013, 12:03PM
    • Actually, looking at the PISA ranking Australia does not lag behind but rates in the top 10 in all fields, scoring above the US and UK. One of the most successful countries, Finland, integrates all abilities in the same class and find it very successful. Look at the US for a failing system of 'ability tracking' that separates low, middle and high achievers in primary school. The difference between Australia and Finland is the level of training, respect and autonomy the teachers are given to carry out their jobs, better in all regards. The amount of in-class support these teachers are given also makes the difference in being able to support the lower ability and challenge the high flyers. There is no better way to show a lower ability student that they are lower ability than by putting them in a 'special school', surely better to acknowledge the problems and help them achieve surrounded by their friends and peers? People fail, that is fine, children need to get used to this - what we have to do is make sure we help them achieve best theycan and that there is no stigma attached to this, again Finland manages this well - it's all about rigour

      Commenter
      Albo
      Date and time
      November 09, 2013, 3:02PM
    • @Plato - absolute rubbish. I have 3 boys at a public school, two in Year 3 and one in Kindergarten, and they do learn grammar. And having varying standards of pupils on one class is called "differentiated learning" and teachers are specifically taught how to handle classes such as this. In fact none of your arguments bears any relation to what happens at my kids' school.

      Commenter
      Misha
      Location
      Tumbi Umbi
      Date and time
      November 09, 2013, 3:23PM
    • Don't worry we can always work as servant to the middle class Asians who value hardwork and education. Time we got rid of the sweatshops in Asian, time for Australia, Europe and the US to do some of their our dirty work again

      Commenter
      abc
      Date and time
      November 10, 2013, 7:07AM
    • Well put. And wrt science education, what can you say about the fact that global warming is forced down kids throats? The 'science' does not add up... so any free-thinking student is going... 'Whatever... pass the remote.'

      Commenter
      Larry
      Date and time
      November 10, 2013, 7:55AM
    • Kids stopped learning grammar due to lofty education reforms, devised and pushed by educational ideologues and abetted by various state Labor governments as a point of distinction from the Conservative governments they had replaced.

      It is utterly ironic that Labor's Ms MacTiernan is now pushing for the reversal of those high-brow reforms, and call for the pedestrian "back to basics". A more formal acknowledgement of failed Labor policies would be in order.

      Commenter
      greg
      Date and time
      November 10, 2013, 10:31AM
    • In my son's class, there are 28 children who are spread among 20 different reading levels. How do you expect the teacher to teach any child properly? The school claimed that they cater for each student's individual needs. But the end result is that no child's needs are properly catered for due to such big diversity in needs. The cause of this problem is that children go through the school system one grade after next based on their age, not merits. A child with obvious problem with reading would be put in a higher grade because he/she is older. No wonder so many people finished high school and are still illiterate.

      Commenter
      Worried
      Location
      Vic
      Date and time
      November 10, 2013, 4:47PM
    • NAPLAN does not properly measure numeracy either. The Maths inspectors in the UK recognised that their previous system which ours is modeled on is deficient. A huge percentage of students entering high school do not know mental arithmetic because all rote learning is shunned. Students then cannot solve equations,factorise, or think through problems since calculators cannot do this. Let's not repeat the mistakes of the UK

      Commenter
      Good Logic
      Date and time
      November 10, 2013, 9:12PM
    • Sorry... think you needed a comma after 'changes' ... ironic, eh?

      Commenter
      Larry
      Date and time
      November 11, 2013, 12:21AM
  • There are plenty of commercial publications with NAPLAN questions for practice on sale in the newsagents.

    There are sample tests on the NAPLAN website.

    I suggest that those who want to know what they remember from their own days in a sit-still, fold your arms, direct instruction classrooms might try themselves out on these.

    Judging by posters to blogs, the adult standards for spelling are appalling.

    Our PM does not know the meaning of "suppository".

    Our Deputy Leader of the National Party is confused by billions and millions. Do you really know what a billion is? Many Adults don't.

    I come across every day adults whose primary school computational skills are very weak. They certainly don't know how to divide by a fraction and are hopeless at percentages, even with calculators.

    The 32 questions in a NAPLAN test for Year 7 range from Year 5 to Year 9 in order of difficulty. In fact, by Year 7, students themselves range from Year 5 to Year 9+ in mathematical ability. It has always been so.
    A student who can do only 3 questions will be ranked in the lowest band accordingly. It is important for the school to know this and to provide what remediation it can, whether by old-fashioned teaching methods or something more innovative - whatever is appropriate for that child.
    What is taught in the classroom over months and what is tested by multiple choice questions in 45 minutes once every two years are complementary not mutually exclusive.

    Commenter
    Lucy original
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    November 09, 2013, 12:34PM

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