Sunday, 21 April 2013

NAPLAN - is it a race and should we focus upon winning..?

NAPLAN is just around the corner for all Australian schools and, given its universal implementation (for years three, five, seven and nine), all schools need to decide how to approach these tests (albeit with some 'direction' provided re. this by Ed. Department policies and mandates... ).

At our school, I was asked to lead the NAPLAN 'preparations' for this year, having had nothing to do with this previously. I haven't been very comfortable with some of the effects NAPLAN has had / is having on education, so this was a bit like asking the vegetarian to cook the barbeque!
I knew my views conflicted with how our school had approached this process previously, so I was a bit apprehensive and initially wanted to 'baulk' this responsibility by handing it to someone else - I didn't want to halfheartedly push something I didn't believe in...
I wrestled with this for a bit, but then thought, if I'm not altogether happy with how our school has gone about this previously, then this is an ideal opportunity to change how our school approaches and prepares for NAPLAN. I discussed all of this with my principal and was encouraged by her support for me to change the way we have gone about this from recent years, although I did have to make some minor 'compromises', to satisfy systemic requirements...

What we needed to remove / stop:

  • Excessively 'prepping' students in the formats and conventions of NAPLAN tests.
  • Using resource books full of worksheets and activities specifically designed to familiarise students with NAPLAN formats and conventions.
  • Incorporating NAPLAN into teacher programs.
  • Incorporating NAPLAN into teacher Performance discussions.
  • Teachers completing a nine-week block of NAPLAN preparation with their classes, including sitting practise tests and use of NAPLAN resource books.
  • Teaching test taking skills.
  • Giving students '10 hot tips for students' documents...
  • Printing NAPLAN preparation activities in school newsletters for parents.

What we kept / amended:

  • NAPLAN meetings, which previously focused upon incorporating NAPLAN-like questions, formats, conditions, etc. into normal teaching and learning programs (ie. preparing for the upcoming tests... ), this year focused upon using the information gleaned from last year's results to inform our planning. ie. We were focusing on identifying the specific knowledge and skills that our cohort of students were 'weak' in and discussing ideas for potential learning experiences that would help students develop these aspects of knowledge / skills. As with other assessments, we were using the data in a formative fashion to make our ongoing teaching and learning programs more precise, rather than training students for a shallow, short-term goal.
  • Incentive program to reward participation in the tests during the testing week. This is something that has been used in recent years and, although very much focusing upon extrinsic motivators, is probably OK for this sort of scenario, where the task (doing the tests... ) is mandated, is single solution and is not inherently motivating for most students.
  • Introducing students to testing formats. We have spoken about using two - three lessons to familiarise students with some of the formats of the NAPLAN tests, but with the purpose being to help avoid the 'freak out' factor some students may experience when confronted with the unfamiliar conventions of the tests, particularly for year three students who would not have experienced NAPLAN before. We have emphasised that more time than this should not be spent on this, as we don't want to take time away from our trusted, core programs and what we value and believe to be quality teaching practice.
  • Information for parents. Alongside the Department-issued information brochures that schools were required to send home to parents, we sent a letter explaining how NAPLAN 'fitted' with the myriad of other assessments we do at our school and with the message that we (school and parents) should be avoiding a competitive mindset towards NAPLAN... Extending further this desire to be open and 'upfront' re. NAPLAN in our school, we are soon to hold a face to face information session for parents, going into more detail about what NAPLAN is, the benefits that can be derived, the potential pitfalls and 'side effects', how it 'fits' at our school and how we are looking to approach these tests - given parents will tend to only be exposed to the very surface-level information about NAPLAN (and other edu. issues... ) via mainstream media, door-stop quotes from politicians, etc, we considered it important to be 'on the front foot' re. communicating with and educating our parents about this.

So that is where we are at ATM re. our approach to NAPLAN - it is not an Olympic event that requires arduous, isolated training and coaching for... It is a (further) useful source of information about how students are achieving in English and Maths and, as such, can help inform our teaching in those areas, but without taking away or taking over from good pedagogy and rounded, comprehensive learning experiences at school.


  1. Nice to see it being addressed from within a school. I can relate to the baulking and apprehension you describe, I have been in exactly the same predicament.
    I guess NAPLAN is something we will have to chip way at until it no longer is politically important to the government of the day,

    1. Hi Tim,
      Which direction are we heading - more and more focus in this area or less and less....?
      I don't think I'm as optimistic as you - I find it hard to believe that our governments will shelve political interest to focus on what is best for students and their learning..... :(