The Untold Stories Behind NAPLAN Data

Another year of NAPLAN is over.

In a few months we’ll receive our results; some students will do exceedingly well, others will not. The school averages will be what they will be, compared by many to national and state averages in each aspect of literacy and numeracy.

The data will be published to MySchool, and some in society will make decisions about how good the delivery of education in our school is, based on the data made available.

But what will never be published are the human stories behind the assessments.

No-one will ever know or be told, that three students were sick for the duration of the testing; sick to the point of having to go home immediately after the tests. But they still sat all of the tests.

No-one will know that students from a language background other than English constituted approximately one quarter of the cohort sitting the tests. And yes, every one of those students sat all of the tests, even though many struggle with speaking, reading and writing English.

And I guess no-one will know that several students came to school angry and sleep deprived, but still sat each of the tests.

No-one will know that several students suffer anxiety and that sitting tests is one of the most challenging things they could ever be asked to do. Yet, they each sat all of the tests too.

No-one will know that for some reason, several students decided to ignore test instructions and not pay any attention to essential stimulus material.

And then there are the students whose stories of personal trouble and distraction we don’t even know about. But I’m sure they were there.

The data will never show these stories. The data will never make mention of the human factors that impact these assessments. Yet judgements will still be made about the data.

I wonder when, as a society, we’ll stop treating children and schools in this way? I wonder when we’ll cease using this antiquated, 20th century assessment tool to judge student performance? And I wonder when assessments might begin to reflect the learning that occurs in classrooms on a daily basis?

As educators, we can prepare students for NAPLAN by teaching them the broadest range of basic skills. We can simulate the test environment and practise the types of assessment questions we expect to be there on test day. We can talk up the importance of performing well and our confidence in students to achieve highly.

But what is virtually impossible, is to convince many students who are used to consistently engaging in learning activities of high interest and passion, that trying their hardest in NAPLAN is somehow a good idea. It quite frankly bores them, so what motivation can we provide to engage them in the tests?

Every day at school is full of fun, curiosity and educational adventure. Every lesson is an attempt to ignite passion in learning, and develop each student’s ability to think critically and creatively. But then for three days of the year, we try to tell students that doing well in a series of tests from a bygone era that bear no resemblance to anything they would normally do, is something to aspire to. Many simply don’t buy it.

It’s amazing to think that NAPLAN mirrors the assessments I grew up with in the 1970s. But of course teaching has moved on immeasurably from those days; classrooms and education systems in general are markedly different now.

Yet we persevere with NAPLAN and try to convince ourselves that it’s a reliable marker of how much students have or haven’t learnt.

Perhaps we should all pause to remember the stories behind the data, before casting judgement when 2017 NAPLAN results are published.