NAPLAN fails the engagement test

NAPLAN fails the engagement test

There is something quite odd about the annual NAPLAN tests. Children from most of the odd years – 3, 5, 7 and 9 – troop into school rooms and halls to complete a test that oddly ignores most of what they study at school.

The oddities keep compounding. Their teachers know that giving feedback soon after tests is essential, but oddly they can’t get the results for months. Literacy and numeracy is extremely important and the tests themselves are well designed – but we really don’t know if the whole exercise is improving long-term student outcomes. Sure, a new regime of tests improves results, if only because everyone gets better at jumping through the test hoops. A common experience is that student results then plateau.

Student interest and engagement in learning is the key to improved outcomes.

Student interest and engagement in learning is the key to improved outcomes.

So we’ve become confused about why we are doing it. Apparently we have to monitor student progress across the nation – a good idea, but sample testing does that just as well without dragging every child through this annual ritual.

Then we apparently need to display the test scores, school by school, up on a website for all to see. NAPLAN scores tell about some things but not about others – so teachers end up doing more of the some and less of the others. Less time is available for the creative, the fun and the engaging stuff – all the things that can encourage even adolescent males to want to get out of bed and go to school.

Student interest and engagement in learning is the key to improved outcomes, including in NAPLAN-type skills. To emphasise, coach and test skills in any isolated fashion is a turn-off. Many children survive a turgid curriculum and colour-by-number teaching, but others become switched off and emerge in depressing statistics about underachievement and everything that goes with it, including in later life.


Then we heap praise or approbation on schools because of their test scores. Parents flock to schools with high scores and avoid the others. This again is odd because school NAPLAN scores closely align with the socio-educational profile of the enrolled students. We really don’t know enough about the difference made by schools. There is certainly little difference created by whether a school is big, small, public, private, comprehensive or a centre of excellence for cross-country clarinet playing.

We are also told schools will lift their game if their test scores are flashed around for all to see. They often do lift their game but it is the wrong game: schools tart up the superficial things and start poaching students who will lift the scores. They know which ones to look out for – the prized information is on student NAPLAN reports. No, competition between schools is not the key to improving outcomes for all. Sure, competition is supposed to improve quality in business, it just doesn’t work the same way in schools.

So what do we do? We certainly should remain concerned about literacy and numeracy but we should sideline this manic catch-up and patch-up approach to improving student outcomes – in anything. The solution to improving learning and test scores, and everything else for the long term, is to engage students in learning and in continuing to learn – long after their school test scores become an often unhappy and sometimes irrelevant memory.

If we want to display the innards of schools for all to see – and there are good reasons to do this – then we should measure and report on everything they do. This includes reporting on student engagement in learning and their achievement across the board. If we measure only what we apparently value, we end up valuing only what we measure.

Chris Bonnor is a retired principal and co-author (with Jane Caro) of What Makes a Good School, New South Publishing.

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