Thursday, 5 March 2015

NAPLAN and the MySchool website (2015 Term 1 Week 7)

On Thursday last week the latest iteration of the MySchool website was launched. This website, now in its fifth year of operation, provides data about Australian schools primarily for the purpose of allowing comparisons. Comparisons can be made on the basis of NAPLAN results, school demographics, resourcing levels available and other metrics. The data aims to inform parents, communities, schools and policy makers in such a way that good decisions and discussions about education can take place. 

Much of the interest around the website has to do with the publication of National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data. The website now contains seven years of NAPLAN results; the most recent results from 2014 have been in the hands of schools and parents for nearly 6 months. For those with a particular interest in NAPLAN, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) maintains a comprehensive website on the topic that includes a lot of information for parents. 

Inaburra School is very happy to have the NAPLAN data made public. There is nothing to hide. As previously indicated, the school has been in possession of our own data for some time and has already gone through our process of analysis and reflection on the data. There are a number of areas wherein we can see sustained improvement over time, such as persuasive writing, and there are no areas that stand out as matters for particular concern.

However, I would like to make some observations about the utility and the limitations of the NAPLAN data as published on MySchool.

First, the NAPLAN data is primarily data about individual students, testing their mastery of essential skills such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy. As such, it is more useful in helping teachers and parents to understand the progress of a particular student than in measuring the quality of a school. There are things that can be learned about a school's progress from NAPLAN, but this is a secondary use of the data.

Second, the test data is a snapshot at a particular point in time and consequently limited.  Any number of factors can affect the performance of a student at any point; health, fatigue, anxiety, diet, environment, perceived pressure, social interactions and various other factors can all come into the mix. In addition, learning is not a simple linear process. There are ebbs and flows in the journey that do not align to the testing schedule. For all these reasons, the NAPLAN result may not be an accurate reflection of a child's level of mastery.

Third, this assessment of skills happens through a particular standardised format that will suit some students more than others. While the skills of literacy and numeracy are vital for all people, there are many other ways in which these skills can be demonstrated and utilised. Your child's teacher(s) has a broader context in which to observe growth and progress and a deeper knowledge of his/her capability. NAPLAN is only one strand of the data that is available to parents and teachers.

Fourth, there are very clear and straightforward ways to obtain higher NAPLAN scores. A school could record significant short-term NAPLAN gains by reducing other elements of the curriculum and engaging in intensive drilling around the NAPLAN tests. In countries such as the UK and the USA, where tests analagous to NAPLAN have high stakes attached to them, such as the ongoing employment of teachers or the viability of schools, exactly these approaches to 'gaming the system' have been observed. Gains are made, but at what cost to the educational experience of the child? Art, music, sport, cultural activites, languages other than English, excursions, community engagement and other elements of a rich and engaging education have been seen to give way before the imperative of improving test scores. Another approach could be to discourage 'weaker' students from participating in the tests.

All of which is to say, the test of the quality of a school is not primarily, or even substantially, in its NAPLAN results. Used well, the data is interesting, illuminating and helpful, but it has narrow and limited utility. 

My advice to all parents who are choosing a school for their child is twofold: visit the school on a normal school day to see it 'living and breathing', and; prioritise word of mouth. What do the people presently at the school have to say? What do the students say? What do the graduates say?

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