David De Carvalho, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Curriculum, discusses the past and future of the NAPLAN tests.
NAPLAN has been in place now for thirteen years. Like many things in education, it has its supporters and detractors. Because of NAPLAN, Australia has over a decade’s worth of invaluable data that has been used by parents, schools, governments and researchers to gain insights into student progress and achievement in literacy and numeracy. The NAPLAN data have informed policy development, resource allocation, curriculum planning and intervention programs.
NAPLAN results are also used by researchers to support findings and insights into achievement gaps for First Nations Australian students, and the results allow us to identify what high progress schools are doing that others could potentially benefit from implementing. But teachers, students and schools are so much more than numbers and data crunching, and parents understand that. They know a 10-minute conversation with their child’s teacher will help them gain an insight into their child’s progress that is richer than just the numbers, and they know that the interaction between a teacher and a student is a key determinant of progress.
NAPLAN has evolved over the past 13 years and moving the tests online has been a significant reform. For the next NAPLAN tests in May 2022, effectively all schools will be undertaking the tests online. We have been moving online since 2018 and it is no small task to execute a large-scale, multi- faceted IT project involving multiple organisations where the technology and logistics are highly complex. It is akin to climbing Mount Everest at night. It is possible only through the partnership and support of all education agencies, state and territory governments, school sectors and schools. This partnership ensured that over a million students in 2021 had a good test experience … or as good an experience as a test can be!
NAPLAN continues to progress and evolve, and education ministers have agreed to important changes that will improve the usefulness of NAPLAN for teaching and learning. The biggest change that will affect schools, students and parents is that NAPLAN is on the move and will be held in Term One from 2023, instead of the usual slot in early Term Two, in May.This is important as it means that results will be available to schools earlier in the school year, allowing teachers to use insights gained from the results to help plan their teaching and learning programs so they can support students to gain important literacy and numeracy skills.
The NAPLAN tests are not assessing the skills a student has learnt in the year to date. They are collecting a snapshot of information about the student’s overall literacy and numeracy skills. For example, a Year 5 numeracy test might ask students to demonstrate their understanding of place value, that is, whether a particular digit represents units, tens, hundreds or thousands depending on its position in a number. For example, a Year 7 numeracy test might ask students to demonstrate their understanding of place value, that is, that the value a particular digit represents depends on its position within the numeral representation of a number. For example, the digit 3 in 4.563 is in the thousandths position and so represents a value of 3 thousandths. Place value is something students begin to learn about in Year 1, decimals are then introduced at Year 4 and by Year 6 students are operating with decimals, so by the time they take the Year 7 NAPLAN numeracy test, they should be able to use their understanding of place value to solve, for example, problems involving multiplication of large numbers or addition and subtraction of decimal numbers. Teachers may already know whether individual students can do this or not, but NAPLAN allows teachers and parents to see how the individual child is progressing against national standards. Importantly, the data allows learning gaps to be spotted to make school- or system-wide reform.
With testing done in March, parents, teachers, principals, and system authorities can act earlier in the school year if required. Writing results will be returned later. While marking of multiple-choice answers in numeracy, reading, spelling, grammar and punctuation is automated, writing continues to be marked by human beings, not machines due to the nature of the assessment, so writing assessments take longer to be marked. Another important change to the National Assessment Program (NAP) is that schools will also be able to opt into tests that assess Year 6 and Year 10 students in science, civics and citizenship, and digital literacy. These assessments will be in addition to the current NAP Sample program of national assessments in Science, Civics and Citizenship, and Digital Literacy, which occurs every 3 years. Results of these opt-in assessments will not be published by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), but used by schools to drive improvements in teaching and learning. The new assessments will be available from 2024, starting with Science, with Civics and Citizenship, and Digital Literacy to follow in 2025 and 2026 respectively. From 2023, the existing NAP Sample program will move from October to Term Two. This means it can be undertaken at the same time as the opt-in assessments, which will allow those results to be compared against the national scale and results from the NAP Sample program. At 13, NAPLAN is hitting its adolescence and the data has helped shape where we are today. These new measures will mean our data will become even more valuable as NAPLAN continues to grow.
David De Carvalho is a regular contributor to Education Matters Primary and Secondary Magazine. This feature was first published in Education Matters Print magazine in April 2022.