TEACHERS are holding practice tests for months prior to NAPLAN and children are experiencing stress-related vomiting and sleeplessness, according to the first national study into the impact of the high-stakes testing regime.
The University of Melbourne study raises significant concerns about the ''unintended side effects'' of NAPLAN, including teaching to the test, a reduction in time devoted to other subjects and a negative impact on student health and staff morale.
Almost half of teachers said they held practice NAPLAN tests at least once a week for five months before the tests every May.
About 90 per cent of the 8353 teachers and principals surveyed said some students felt stressed before NAPLAN tests, with symptoms including crying, sleeplessness, vomiting and absenteeism.
NAPLAN tests, which assess the literacy and numeracy skills of students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, have been conducted nationwide since 2008.
The study's researchers have called for a national debate into whether there are other ways the data could be collected without the negative impacts revealed in their findings.
''We are narrowing the curriculum in order to test children,'' said lead researcher Nicky Dulfer. ''There are ways we can support numeracy and literacy learning without limiting children's access to other subjects like music, languages and art.''
However, federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett said the results of the survey did not reflect the feedback he consistently received.
''Principals and teachers tell me that NAPLAN has proven a really valuable tool to help track student performance and direct attention and resources where they are needed,'' he said.
Mr Garrett said there was nothing in the tests that students needed to learn above and beyond what was already in the curriculum. ''There is no reason that the teaching of other subjects should suffer or that students should feel stressed.''
The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority says ''excessive test preparation is not useful'' and ''NAPLAN tests are not tests students can 'prepare' for.''
But the Australia-wide survey found 39 per cent of teachers held weekly practice tests - and 7 per cent held daily tests - in the five months prior to NAPLAN.
''Unsurprisingly, teachers also reported that many students became very bored with this,'' report authors Ms Dulfer, Suzanne Rice and John Polesel said.
More than 70 per cent of educators surveyed said they taught to the test and 69 per cent said NAPLAN had led to a reduction in the time they spent teaching subjects that were not tested.
There were also concerns about the effect of the tests on students' self-esteem. ''As one teacher put it … some students have a belief that they are viewed as dumb by the rest of the community,'' said the report, The Experience of Education: The impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families.
However, 46 per cent of teachers and just over two-thirds of principals believed NAPLAN information was useful.
Although the federal government tries to ensure NAPLAN results are not used to create school league tables, most teachers believed a purpose of the tests was to rank schools and police their performance.
Only 42 per cent saw NAPLAN as a diagnostic tool. ''As one teacher posited, 'results come out too late in the year to make a significant impact during that year'.''
Ninety per cent believed lower-than-expected NAPLAN results would mean that a school would have trouble attracting and retaining students.
More than 2280 teachers knew of students who had changed schools as a result of poor results. Other research indicated middle-class parents were more adept at using NAPLAN results to help them choose schools, ''whereas parents with less social and economic capital have less capacity to use this information to their advantage''.
While international research has raised concerns about high-stakes testing in countries such as the US and the UK, the relative newness of NAPLAN has meant there has been little data on its impact available until now. The study was commissioned by the Whitlam Institute within the University of Western Sydney.
''The report suggests the NAPLAN testing regime is plagued by unintended consequences well beyond its stated intent. It does represent a shift to high-stakes testing,'' said institute director Eric Sidoti.