NAPLAN 2018: Hidden sting in ACT data raises red flags for researchers

This week NAPLAN will return to Canberra classrooms for another year, with half of Australian students expected to sit the national literacy and numeracy test online.

The territory is leading the charge on online testing - just three Canberra schools will undergo the old paper test - ahead of a complete transition nation-wide next year.

But debate continues to rage about the usefulness of NAPLAN and the publication of its results on the My School website, which many say puts unfair pressure on schools.

On the ground, Canberra teachers and students largely report the day is treated like any other.

Caitlyn Crick and Alyssia Borgia (back) of Merici College, one of 12 ACT schools recognised for above average learning improvement in last year's results. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Caitlyn Crick and Alyssia Borgia (back) of Merici College, one of 12 ACT schools recognised for above average learning improvement in last year's results. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

At Merici College, one of 12 ACT schools singled out in the latest results for above-average learning improvement, principal Loretta Wholley said preparation was limited to running through a quick online practice test.

"You can't teach to the test, it doesn't work," she said. "It's just a snapshot, and it's important to have, but it can never show everything...For us, so many of our girls come into class and say 'I can't do maths'."

So the school changed tack - bringing in more games to teach numeracy along with "fast-paced" classes students could elect to join as a learning challenge.

At Harrison School, which also recorded high learning growth, year 7 student Mahin was feeling prepared for the test, and eager to bid paper and pencil goodbye.

"I think NAPLAN on a computer will be takes more time writing it down and it can be a waste of paper printing all those test booklets".

It's just like any other test.

Heather Bravo, Merici College student

In the latest 2018 results, Canberra students again performed well, but did not dominate the ranks of the nation's top performers - raising a red flag for some researchers.

Peter Goss at the Grattan Institute said it was extraordinary that, despite Canberra's relative advantages, half as many of its students made the top performance bands in some areas compared to the rest of the country.

He said the results suggested ACT schools were good at supporting struggling students, with fewer pupils on average falling below the minimum standard.

"That's great but it's failing to stretch its top performing students," he said. "It's time the ACT had a real look at what's driving this."

Research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies Blaise Joseph agreed the trend warranted an inquiry - a recent recommendation of an ACT parliamentary committee.

While he stressed Canberra was still the nation's top performer overall, he said the system wasn't doing as well as it should. "NAPLAN is like a thermometer. It tells you if you have a fever, it doesn't cure you," he said. "Systems need to use the data to see the issues and evaluate interventions."

The committee's recommendation came after a string of expert reports found ACT students were lagging behind those from similar socioeconomic backgrounds interstate.

Former Productivity Commission economist Trevor Cobbold has also called for an inquiry, pointing to the ACT's below average Year 12 retention rate among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

It's good practice for being in a test environment...I do my best so I'm proud no matter what.

Alyssia Borgia, Merici College student

But Education Minister Yvette Berry rejects the calls, saying the latest data showed another good outcome for the ACT.

"There are some areas where we know we can improve and that's why [we've] been investing in teachers and school leaders ... as well as work on early years literacy," she said.

The ACT's new 10-year education strategy took a more holistic approach focused on equity, she said, "rather than measuring a student's intelligence, abilities and worth purely on their strength in literacy and numeracy".

A government spokeswoman said analysis based on top performance bands was not standard practice given its variability, though 2018 results were comparable across jurisdictions.

Professional learning communities were now being set up in schools where teachers could discuss strategies to stretch high-performing students as well as those who were struggling, she said.

Work is also underway at the the national assessment authority ACARA to refine the way socioeconomic advantage is calculated, after the territory raised concerns that Canberra's unique social spread could be skewing the data.

The authority said the calculation was not just an issue for the territory, but making fair comparisons across schools was crucial.

The online version is easier to use because the computer reads the question out to you.

Joe, Kaleen Primary student

Last year, Ms Berry spearheaded a national review into My School, which will report back to the education council of ministers in June.

Mr Joseph acknowledged NAPLAN could be improved but defended the annual publication of results, saying taxpayers expected accountability for the billions spent each year on schools.

He noted parents inevitably considered a range of factors when choosing a school, including academic achievement, but it was better such decisions were informed by reliable data rather than potentially misguided perceptions created by a school's look or reputation.

"One of possible reasons we've seen a slight trend back to government schools [in the ACT and nationally] is because parents can go online and see that quite often the local school performs very well compared to a private," he said.

At the ACT's peak parents group, Veronica Elliott said parents did not rely on NAPLAN data when choosing a school, often finding their own child's individual data the most useful.

But she said families valued the accountability of My School, and echoed concerns about the ACT's relative underperformance. While the government already had programs aimed at lifting student results, Ms Elliot said this varied from school to school and stressed efforts needed to include private schools as well as the public system.

ACARA boss David de Carvalho said the strength of NAPLAN was its power to diagnose gaps in learning across systems and help focus efforts, as was the case for indigenous students who had seen significant growth in learning over the test's 10-year life.

But the ACT branch of the Australian Education Union has pointed to other performance indicators, including the high proportion of children in school and Year 12 retention rates, as better measures of the ACT school system.

The latest report on school leavers, published last month, found 93 per cent of Year 12 graduates in 2017 were employed or studying in 2018.