NAPLAN Reflections

In a couple of weeks students in Years 3 and 5 will sit the NAPLAN tests. While these assessments can provide some data on how children are faring in literacy and numeracy, the data is limited and can actually be misleading.

Let's take the writing assessment, for example. Ask yourself what writing skills you believe are important for assessing the ability of young writers. Sure, writing well-structured texts with at least a reasonable level of spelling accuracy is important, but of course there's so much more than that to being a proficient writer.

Surprisingly, for a child to excel in the NAPLAN writing assessment, they don't have to be a particularly good writer. Similarly, proficient writers don't always excel in the assessment. In fact, local historical data suggests they often do not.

But why? To score well in the assessment, points are awarded for showing evidence of using specific writing conventions. If students are asked to write a persuasive text, there is a rigid formula to follow if maximum points are to be attained. Students with a good memory for rote learning, who can produce on test day what they have consistently rehearsed, are able to do very well.

Structurally, their text must begin with an introduction, identifying the topic and expressing the writer's point of view. This must be followed with several paragraphs, each beginning with a connective that links it to the next. Finally, there must be a conclusion which ties the argument together. Students have 30 minutes to complete the task, no more no less, showing they have used different sentence types with consistent punctuation and spelling.

This rote style, checklist approach to writing can be drilled into kids and in many schools it is. Teaching to the test like this, rather than teaching meaningful writing skills is sadly common practice, probably because of the perceived pressure for schools to do well in NAPLAN. A lot of schools hang their hats and educational reputation on how their own average scores rate against state and national averages.

What's important to us, however, is that children write passionately about things that matter. An impassioned persuasive text should not necessarily have to begin with a traditional introduction. Why can't it begin with a thought provoking, emotive argument and flow from there? Why does there have to be a rigid formula of paragraphs, each beginning with connectives that are so often extremely basic? (My first argument is ... My second argument ...) Why should we restrict creative writing structures, and in their place impose a box ticking system that rewards young writers with points for low-level writing competencies?

If a writer is to be truly persuasive, strict writing conventions should surely only be used as a guide so that predictable, factory-like language structures are avoided, not encouraged.

Sadly, this type of creativity is discouraged and penalised in NAPLAN. Writing is seen as a linear process where "quality" can be achieved in half an hour by simply using a formula of writing conventions we know will score well. Do you think for a moment that any successful author or journalist would support the notion that this is what represents quality writing?

So please don't read too much into your child's NAPLAN results. They may be good, they may not. They may provide you with limited information that is accurate, but a chat with your child's class teacher or a look at work samples on the device that goes home each day will reveal infinitely more useful information. Perhaps it may even paint a completely different picture about your child's writing ability.

We're preparing children to be reflective writers who can put together logical, coherent and fluent texts on important issues, as well as developing creative and imaginative writing talents. This still involves a solid understanding of spelling, grammar and punctuation, within a writing process that relies on editing and constant review. This is what our syllabus demands.

To limit a writing assessment so that it excludes much of what we teach, and then to claim that same assessment is some sort of accurate indication of a child's writing prowess, is entirely fanciful.

By the way, this persuasive piece of writing of mine has not followed the traditional formulaic structures that would score well in a NAPLAN assessment. I'm sure this blog post would have only scored an average mark but I can live with that!

Comments

You've persuaded me. It's awesome to see a chilled-out approach to NAPLAN, and that we're embracing more creative approaches to areas such as writing at our school. I have faith in MOPS and in my children's teachers. The kids' love of learning, and the articulation of their ideas--even in conversation--tells me much more than standardised testing ever could.

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