NAPLAN sets the bar too low to spot students at risk of failing

NAPLAN sets the bar too low to spot students at risk of failing

But for this to work, transitioning from numbered bands to proficiency levels must include language that clearly describes each benchmark.

Yet, some linguistic choices, such as “developing” proficiency, are a light touch for defining achievement that is, in fact, not at the proficient level – since below proficiency is, by definition, not developing. And defining what appears to be the proficient level as being “strong” risks further confusing NAPLAN’s users.

Instead, ministers should have taken the opportunity to opt for an unambiguous scale: highly proficient, proficient, below proficient, and well below proficient.

Four in 10 Australian students don’t reach the proficient standard in PISA. But only about one in 10 are below NAPLAN’s minimum standard.

It’s long been clear that the previously defined “national minimum standards” are exceptionally low: in effect, indicating functional illiteracy or innumeracy for a student at a given age. But because this benchmark has been so low, it also means many students who clear it – those achieving at the national minimum level – should also be considered at educational risk, even though they’re not always treated as such.

The problem has been that national minimums have been interpreted as equivalent to a satisfactory level, rather than one signaling significant underachievement.

By way of comparison, about four in 10 Australian 15-year-olds don’t reach the national proficient standard in the OECD-run Program for International Student Assessment. But only about one in 10 students in Year 9 are below NAPLAN’s national minimum standard.

Still, changes to reporting will be effectively meaningless if they’re not matched with better intervention for underachievement. On this count, the track record has been disappointing.

The unfortunate truth is that teachers and parents have not consistently and effectively acted when NAPLAN showed students’ underperformance. A 2019 review found that NAPLAN was rarely used to inform day-to-day teaching practice, and many parents didn’t know when and how to support children who needed extra help.

Disappointingly, a recent Productivity Commission report showed the vast majority of students who fall behind the minimum benchmark never go on to exceed the minimum benchmark later in schooling. The majority of these students aren’t from disadvantaged backgrounds or those suffering from learning difficulties. They are students who need, but don’t receive, consistently high quality teaching.

That’s not because teachers don’t want or care about their students’ learning. It’s because too many haven’t been equipped to deliver as effectively as possible.

A December report found most Australian teachers believe they’re using evidence-based practices in the classroom, but the same number are not up to date on evidence-based, scientifically informed teaching.

NAPLAN should signal the need for intervention and remediation, so new reporting must be matched with schools’ capacity to actually turn around poor outcomes. The new underachievement benchmark may help in this goal, but only if teachers have the tools to effectively intervene.

While it’s true that the test of assessment isn’t for results to improve – years of mixed NAPLAN results show this – it’s also true that national educational improvement can’t be achieved without credible and rigorous measurement and monitoring.

To this end, NAPLAN’s overdue but necessary renovations over recent years have largely been good.

For example, the test is now fully online and gives a better reading of students’ capabilities. And students now sit NAPLAN earlier in the school year, with results available more quickly – in theory, giving teachers and parents more opportunity to act on areas of need.

These refinements have occurred despite the faithful retrograde campaign against NAPLAN and standardized assessment more broadly. Yet, successive independent reviews have reached a consensus that while NAPLAN is generally valuable and here to stay, its diagnostic capacity is underutilized.

It will take both better testing and better teaching for Australia to turn around the recent history of disappointing educational outcomes.