The annual release of NAPLAN results has brought with it the expected commentary on the value of the annual testing.
The discussion has been dominated by negativity about the national testing including the criticism that teachers coach students specifically for the test at the expense of the broader curriculum.
The value of the detailed NAPLAN data at the national, State, system and individual school level has been largely overlooked in the sometimes superficial coverage of NAPLAN, including the persistent claim about stress on young students (despite over many years no objective evidence having been brought forward to support such a claim).
A particular focus of concern this year was with the writing component of NAPLAN. Undoubtedly there was an issue with the 2014 writing test which was the only part of NAPLAN to record a fall in student results across States and Territories compared with previous years.
However, the writing results should not be used as a reason to abandon NAPLAN. Rather, the focus should be on addressing the issues with the writing task and then get on with the job of using the overall NAPLAN outcomes as a rich piece of evidence to drive improved student outcomes.
Nationally, the 2014 NAPLAN results show overall student achievement has remained stable from 2008 to 2014, with some improvement in reading, grammar and punctuation, but a slight decline in writing.
Whilst recognising that significant year-to-year improvements in student performance are unlikely, the fact that our national results have remained static over a seven-year period is of concern. The Federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne has also expressed concern, pointing out that while total government spending on schools between 1987/88 and 2011/12 doubled in real terms, student numbers have only increased by 18 per cent.
Queensland is a good example of where NAPLAN outcomes have helped improve State results. The Queensland performance in national testing when NAPLAN was first introduced in 2008 was a shock to the then Queensland Government. Queensland students lagged well behind the performance of students in the major States.
There is no doubt that the 2008 NAPLAN results provided a wake-up call for Queensland, and since that time there has been a focused effort on improvement. Seven years on, the Queensland performance on NAPLAN is recognised as considerably improved.
Since the inception of NAPLAN, Independent Schools Queensland (ISQ) has been encouraging schools to look at NAPLAN performance in the upper bandsat each year level. (NAPLAN results at each year level are reported in 10 Bands. For Year 3, Band 2 represents the national minimum standard. Year 3 students in Band 6 are performing at very high levels, well above the national minimum standard.)
In 2008, just 9.8 per cent of Queensland Year 3 students achieved Band 6 in Reading compared to 20.9 per cent in NSW. In 2014, 20.9 per cent of Queensland Year 3 students achieved Band 6. This is a significant improvement, validating the policy initiatives and focus on improved student outcomes over the past seven years.
Despite the significant improvement in Queensland NAPLAN results, there is still more work to be done.
State improvements have been driven by not only big ticket policy initiatives (for example, introduction of the Prep Year, kindergarten participation rates, Australian Curriculum) but by a school-level focus on teaching and learning. ISQ's own Literacy and Numeracy Coaching Academy has helped gain improvements, and this would not have been possible without the information about school performance available through NAPLAN.
Yes, we do need to remember that NAPLAN results show a snapshot in time and are not the sole measure of students' abilities. However, we should embrace NAPLAN as the mechanism to monitor student outcomes at the national, State and school levels and to drive policy initiatives for improved student outcomes.
The challenge for Queensland education now is how do we take that next step and build on improvements over the past seven years to achieve the goal of being one of the top performing states by 2020.
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