The NAPLAN risk – data can fail to identify a school’s real needs - Education Matters Magazine
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The NAPLAN risk – data can fail to identify a school’s real needs

NAPLAN-web

Some state governments have considered linking the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data to school funding. Although the perceived benefits of this funding model may indicate the education outcomes of schools can be lifted, Jo Anderson, Lecturer in Inclusive Education at the University of New England, has told Education Matters that the issue is more complex.

What are some of the perceived benefits of linking NAPLAN data to school funding?

There are perceived benefits because NAPLAN purports to assess to the basic literacy and numeracy skills, and also because one of the things it measures is the national minimum standards. So we’re talking about looking at a standardised test that gives a minimum standard skillset that all students should reach, but really with the national minimum standard we’re looking at 100% of students, ultimately that would be the ideal. So it’s about a perception that it can target those really basic needs – the literacy and numeracy skills that all students are going to need to be able to engage with all the other areas of the curriculum.

What are the challenges of linking NAPLAN data to school funding?

Well there’s a few big key issues. One of them is around participation in NAPLAN. We know that every year we’ve got declining numbers of students participating in NAPLAN, and the other thing is that that’s not consistent across schools or sectors. You could have two schools that are almost in one community, one school might have 100% participation, the next school will have 80% participation. So when you’re looking at linking funding to NAPLAN and you haven’t got data from all the students in the school that can cause issues when they do impute data because you’re not getting a really accurate representation. So there’s a risk of the data actually not identifying clearly where the real needs are.

Also, students with an intellectual disability are exempt from sitting a NAPLAN test, along with students that don’t have English as their first language. We also know that a lot of the students who are absent for NAPLAN testing tend to be students with learning difficulties that sit at the bottom end. So none of those students are having their data counted in the NAPLAN data. Which again means that you are at risk of actually not really identifying where the needs are.

What are the downfalls of penalising schools for their success?

Well that’s a really interesting one. Schools will implement a program – if their results are poorer they get additional funding and they can put in some really good programs in place. But we know with education that for programs to be successful, theyneed to be sustainable, and they need to be ongoing and long-term. The problem with the NAPLAN data is that because it’s set every two years, each year you’re testing a different cohort of students. So one year a cohort of students could do quite poorly and the school gets some additional funding. In the next lot of tests, the school can actually perform quite well but it’s a different cohort of students that’s being tested. So if the school was to then be penalised, they’re going to lose funding even though the students who need it still need it, but also as I said you need funding for the long-term.

Schools need to know that they’re going to get this funding for five years so they can actually put some really good programs in place, and know they’re going to be able to sustain it to see students through their years of schooling. If you’re looking at employing additional staff, buying additional resources, all of those things, that needs to be sustainable over time. And with improving literacy and numeracy skills, there’s no quick fix. It’s not about a quick fix, it’s about sustained intervention that’s going to build and improve outcomes for kids.

What are your suggestions for what schools and governments can do with NAPLAN data?

Although I’m at university now, I’ve just come out of working in the school system for many years and working in leadership roles in schools, and I think it can be very useful for schools to drill down into the individual student data. For individual students it’s quite useful to see what areas within literacy and numeracy are areas of need and areas of strength. You can see patterns within classrooms, so there might be a Year 5 classroom where students are particularly struggling in inferencing, and so you can see that you need to put some support in there. So schools can use it in that way.

I think it’s a useful tool if it’s used in conjunction with a whole lot of other data. That’s one of the things the Gonski review acknowledges – that NAPLAN is a data set that is available. It’s the onlystandardised data set that we have across the nation. But it needs to be used in conjunction with a whole lot of other sets of data. There’s so much data out there, I think that NAPLAN certainly has its place as a small part of that big picture data can give. However, when we’re looking at that national level or even at the state level, I don’t think it should play any more of a role than just one part of the data puzzle.

In schools, if you get inside the data and actually have a look at what the students are doing, what their areas of strengths are, where they need to build, perhaps as a school there might be some areas of weakness, then you can target some professional development for teachers and maybe target some additional support staff in the classes. So it does have its place in that way. But then again, you’ve still got some schools where you’ve got large numbers of students who are not sitting NAPLAN, so they don’t actually have that data. You need to make sure you’ve got data for all the students in your school so that you can use it to inform planning and teaching for all students, not just ones that do sit NAPLAN.

Do you have any suggested improvements for NAPLAN going into the future?

That’s a really good question. It’s a really tricky one because as soon as you look at any testing regime, obviously it needs to be done in a way so that it’s manageable. I certainly think by making NAPLAN available online for students it becomes more accessible, but also you can start to have higher expectations, or drill down a little bit more into some of the literacy and numeracy skills. One of the questions around NAPLAN is, is it really testing? Does it really test reading? Does it really test spelling? And I think if we looked at using digital technologies, then perhaps we could make sure that NAPLAN is really testing what it purports to test.

Now that we have a national curriculum, I do wonder whether rather than relying so heavily on NAPLAN it would be better to look at making sure that we perhaps increase moderation and get more consistency around the assessments that we use within our schools to assess the outcomes of the curriculum that the school students are working on, and perhaps look at report card data and at strengthening some of those things. It gives a bigger picture. One of the things with NAPLAN is that there’s no story behind the data. And when you lose that story behind the data, you run a risk of not really capturing that student or the essence of the learning of that student.

I think once NAPLAN goes online that will open up a whole lot of opportunities. We certainly need to work at making NAPLAN more accessible to the cohorts ofstudents that are currently exempt. Given that NAPLAN has the prominence it does federally and nationally, they don’t have any voice in that data at the moment, so I think that needs to be something that we need to work on.