How to make NAPLAN more useful

by Brett Henebery07 Aug 2015

Dr Jae Major, a senior lecturer at Charles Sturt University’s School of Teacher Education told The Educator how declining grades might be reversed.

“The way to make NAPLAN more useful and to enhance its potential for having a positive effect on outcomes is to change it from being a high stakes test that is administered on a single day,” Major told The Educator.

“It must be a suite of standardised tests that are nationally normed, and that teachers can use early in the year, along with other assessment tools, to build a rich understanding of the progress and areas of need amongst their students.”

Preliminary results from NAPLAN tests, released on Wednesday, revealed little sign of overall improvement since the standardised exams were introduced in 2008, something ACARA CEO, Robert Randall called a “cause for reflection”.

However, Major has done some reflection and said the problem is not with teachers but with the test itself.

“In essence, a test cannot, on its own, improve student outcomes, A test, no matter how good it is, is only one source of information about progress and achievement,” Major told The Educator.

“It is how the information it provides is used to inform teaching and learning that is the key to improving student outcomes.”

Major said that, as it stands, NAPLAN is not used as a source of data to inform teachers’ planning or practices, mostly because the results come too late to be of use. She added that teachers don’t know how to effectively analyse or use the results to inform their teaching.

However, some senior educators have blamed new teachers’ and claimed they lack the ability to teach key subjects to the standards required.

“We need to change the way we train our teachers. No one is being trained in how to respond to the NAPLAN results and that is why we are flat-lining,” one senior educator who did not want to be named told The Daily Telegraph.

“Teachers have to know how to teach writing and reading and analyse the data. We cannot have people who scrape through high school getting into (teaching). At Sydney University you will need an ATAR of 90 but at others it can be 60 or below.”

Major agreed that teachers’ professional development is indeed an important factor in how the tests results are scrutinised, but cautioned against using such a “narrow focus” to measure such a complex type of testing.   

Major suggested instead of the results being sent back to a central authority for analysis and reporting in league tables – as if they were definitive proof of the quality of the school and teachers – the results should be analysed to provide information about areas of strength and need back to schools and teachers.

“The missing component in the process is professional learning to help teachers understand standardised test results in depth, and how to use them along with the other assessment data they collect to develop targeted learning programs,” Major said.

“The other problem with NAPLAN, like all standardised tests, is a narrow focus. Such tests have to provide the kind of data that can be reduced to statistical tables for easy comparison and reporting.

“Unfortunately, literacy and numeracy skills and – more importantly – their application in real life, cannot be neatly reduced to this kind of testing.”


  • by Patrick Bakes 7/08/2015 1:52:01 PM

    Finally someone is speaking some sense. Yes, make the test more than a once in every two years 'high-stakes' test. Create a series of tests that can be used earlier, used diagnostically and used as part of a range of assessments. Let the markers analyse the data and not just produce a score but instead produce useful observations and recommendations. Stop blaming teachers and maybe ask if it is a problem with the test itself. I'd like to hear more from Dr Major. One more point. Numeracy too often is testing literacy more than numeracy.

  • by Pam Munro-Smith 7/08/2015 10:10:14 PM

    NAPLAN was never designed or intended to be a diagnostic, formative assessment tool (assessment 'for' learning). That is, its purpose is not to provide teachers with specific information about what their students know, understand and can do, nor to reveal misconceptions, to support teaching and learning at the classroom and individual student level.
    The purpose of NAPLAN is to tell the government whether the funds they are providing to schools is making a difference. Another purpose of NAPLAN is for schools to see if their programs and funds are making a difference. NAPLAN is an annual 'litmus' test. It is a summative assessment (assessment 'of' learning). As such, NAPLAN is neither too late or early - it just is.
    Schools are provided with their NAPLAN results. As a leader in my primary schools I have worked with my colleagues to analyse the NAPLAN data to look for patterns, strengths and weaknesses. When there are areas of concern flagged by a school's NAPLAN results the school should then be looking at its own data. Each school should have an assessment schedule - a timetable for the year documenting when specific assessment is to be carried out by teachers. That data should be collected and held centrally, preferably using software that can produce reports for analysis by teachers and school leadership. In addition, teachers should be assessing their students on an ongoing basis in order to plan their teaching to differentiate and build on student's learning.
    It is this school, classroom and individual student level data that should inform decisions about teaching and learning, and enable differentiation to address the individual needs of students. Consequently, schools need to select their assessments carefully to ensure that they provide the rich understanding of the progress and areas of need amongst their students.
    Once areas of need have been identified, teachers need to collaborate to build their capability to teach in those areas - ideally, immediately prior to teaching them. If the expertise does not exist within the school, it should be sourced externally. Collaboration can only occur effectively if the culture in the school is non-threatening so that teachers feel comfortable to be honest about their teaching practice with their colleagues and leadership.
    Conclusion: So this is how schools can use NAPLAN to improve their student's learning and outcomes: When the NAPLAN data arrives in the school, analyse and identify areas requiring attention, analyse the fine data collected in the school in those areas, make decisions about how to proceed - for example: teachers collaborate to improve teaching capability, expert brought in to coach teachers, students placed in differentiated groups for targeted teaching, etc?? Implement decisions, monitor progress using ongoing assessment and make adjustments to decisions as required. It is the fine, targeted professional development, teaching and learning that makes the difference!
    When the NAPLAN data arrives in the school, analyse the data. Celebrate the improvements resulting from the decisions and hard work of the teachers and school leaders together!!
    NAPLAN also improves student learning by initiating professional discussions such as this one :-)