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University of Sydney experts take NAPLAN to task

13 May 2019
Experts say maths and numeracy tests’ have silver linings
The federal election has largely overshadowed the 12th iteration of NAPLAN, commencing this week. Yet that does not mean the tests are uncontroversial. University of Sydney experts deconstruct the debate surrounding them.

Rhetoric and reality

Dr Rachel Wilson, Senior Lecturer Research Methods / Assessment & Evaluation at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, say the tests do not accurately reflect student ability.

“There was a lot of rhetoric that suggested that NAPLAN could be diagnostic and used to inform teaching,” she said. “In practice the test is not sensitive enough and the timing does not help teachers apply what they can learn from the test.”

MySchool website

Due to NAPLAN results being published on the MySchool website, Professor Jim Tognilini from the Sydney School of Education and Social Work says their meaning is often distorted.

“When NAPLAN was built, its purpose was to give feedback on one occasion, in the context of all other information,” the Director of Educational Measurement and Assessment Hub said. 

“Now, schools are advertising themselves and selecting students based on NAPLAN results.

“Because of this, NAPLAN has lost credibility.”

Dr Wilson agrees with Professor Tognilini. “[MySchool] has reduced the possibilities for assessment for learning and created downward pressure and stress on schools, teachers and students,” she said.

She explained that such are the negative outcomes of large-scale, high-stakes tests that they have been dropped by countries like Singapore and Scotland. Sample testing, for instance, is an alternate, preferable assessment method. 

Professor Tognilini says it’s up to teachers to set the record straight: “NAPLAN itself is useful for what it’s measuring.”

Screen versus paper

The online version of NAPLAN, rolled out in some schools, automatically adapts to a student’s performance, whereas the paper version does not. 

Fears that this means the tests are incomparable are misplaced, Professor Tognilini says: “I have gone on record before in saying that the results from the paper-and-pencil tests and the online tests are comparable, even if they are not the same.”

Student stress

Dr Micah Goldwater, from the University’s School of Psychology, says the anxiety NAPLAN provokes in students can be deleterious. 

“There is a lot of evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience that stress and anxiety reduces working memory capacity,” the expert in the nature, acquisition, and use of knowledge said.

“Beyond how exam stress can affect everyone in this way, there is a lot of work showing that a large proportion of students suffer from ‘maths anxiety’. Brain imaging data shows that presenting a maths problem to solve to someone with math anxiety activates same brain networks as feeling physical pain.

“Putting all of this together, and again with the high stakes nature of these exams, suggests that a lot of kids are going to do much worse on these exams than they would under different conditions.”

More broadly, Dr Wilson says the culture around NAPLAN needs to change: “[It] sends the wrong messages to students - that it’s all about performance and competition - and frustrates our teachers.”

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