Revised NAPLAN dates spark fresh controversy about the test

14 March 2023

Over 1.3 million students will sit NAPLAN this week – a shift from the usual May scheduling – promising to give teachers early results to inform learning and teaching for the remainder of the year.

A four-band measure will also replace the 10-band assessment of student literacy and numeracy skills: exceeding; strong; developing; and needs additional support. The previous finer granularity with more bands will be lost, and schools, parents and others may be lured into a false sense of student achievement under the new categories.

That’s according to CQUniversity education expert Professor Ken Purnell who believes the shift in dates may provide little real benefit to students and the new assessment bands may be simply confusing for schools and parents.

“The 2023 proficiency standard requires a higher level of achievement than the previous national minimum standard. Thus, there is a lack of comparability of 2023 and future NAPLAN data with previous years,” Professor Purnell explained.

“More students will fall below the proficient standard. Estimates are that those in the lowest category will rise from the previous 7.3 per cent of students to over 10 per cent. Around 30 per cent of students are likely not to meet proficiency.

“Thus, a lot of students and parents will be concerned about the results and potentially this will contribute to mental health issues and an ongoing sense of failure at school work.”

Although the changes may be a good thing for some, Professor Purnell argues that maybe it’s time for the nation to rethink NAPLAN and find a better way to support our teachers and students.

Professor Ken Purnell believes there are better ways to spend NAPLAN dollars that could achieve better results.

“I would prefer NAPLAN resources be used on enhancing the teaching workforce for the benefit of the achievements and wellness – including mental health – for all Australian students,” Prof Purnell said.

“It’s time to rethink what we do and how to champion the professionalism of our teachers as is done in high-performing counties in international tests.”

In addition to NAPLAN's date change and assessment band structure, authorities have added another school testing program.

The National Assessment Plan (NAP) triennial opt-in program for schools for Year 6 and 10 students will become annual and phased in with Science in 2024, Civics and Citizenship in 2025 and Digital Literacy in 2026, with these results to be publicly reported by ACARA.

However, Professor Purnell doubts the changes will provide value overall.

“Are the changes worth it? For some, the answer is yes, absolutely! But for many, it is a resounding no!

“The latter will see it as a further impost to the already perceived ongoing annual burden on Australia's students, schools, parents, carers and schooling authorities.

“It adds to what is already seen as too heavy and will take even more valuable time from teaching and learning in other areas of the Australian Curriculum.”

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Professor Purnell said the old ‘teach what you test and test what you teach’ comes into play, meaning what is not tested nationally in NAPLAN is considered less worthy.

He said this comes at a time when educators and the community again appreciate The Arts, HPE and other curriculum areas more for the very positive contributions they make to the achievements and wellness of our students.

However, he said there is value in getting results early in the year to assist in planning learning experiences related to literacy and numeracy – that’s if schools are using it for this purpose and not for school rankings and promotions of school leaders.

The National Assessment Plan (NAP) will be voluntary and annual in Science, Civics and Citizenship, and Digital Literacy. Like NAPLAN, it will no doubt provide valuable data to inform the learning experiences for students.

However, Professor Purnell questions whether the data will be representative of the cohort, given that schools need to opt-in to participate.

“There is a strong argument to make the burden of NAPLAN less, not more, with NAP added. And for resources being ‘wasted’ annually to get the same results in each jurisdiction – some argue strongly that such human and financial resources could be better used to improve student achievements and wellness than testing them annually.  

“There is, of course, the unfortunate spin-off where NAPLAN results have taken on far more of a high-stakes nature, with jobs and promotions sometimes dependent on seeing improvements. That is very stressful and unnecessarily adds to already overworked school educators.”

Professor Purnell said the reality of NAPLAN is that it takes up valuable school time in test preparation as schooling authorities and school principals demand good results.