Principal, Richard Waters, explains the School’s approach to the National Testing Program, the results of which have been the cause of some concern on the part of Queensland Educators.

The official description of the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is that it is:

“An assessment program for Year 3, Year 5, Year 7 and Year 9 students, testing knowledge and skills in Literacy and Numeracy. The results of the tests provide information for students, parents, teachers and principals about student achievement which can be used to support teaching and learning programs”.

Parents receive an individual report of their child’s achievement in the tests of Numeracy, Spelling, Language Conventions (spelling, grammar and punctuation), Reading and Writing. This report also shows how the student’s achievement sits in relation to the middle 60% of students in Queensland and also whether or not they are above the National Minimum Standard.

There has been some soul searching in Queensland because of Queensland’s supposedly “poor performance” on the national tests. The Government brought in Prof. Geoff Masters of ACER to report on the situation and there has been a lot of pressure on state schools to lift their performance. Unfortunately, not much publicity has been given to the fact that Queensland students are on average six months younger than students in other states at the same grade level. Neither has there been coverage of the fact that, particularly in Grade 3 and Grade 5, the Queensland Curriculum does not include some of the subject matter and skills that are being tested, or that Year 7 in most states is at secondary level, whereas it is the last year of primary in Queensland. These are problems partly arising from the national testing being introduced three years ahead of the national curriculum.

As a consequence of these results, there has been a fair bit of teaching-to-the-test going on in schools for most of Term 1. Clearly, it is a good idea to prepare students appropriately so that the test format is not a surprise and their performance is not unduly affected by lack of familiarity, but that is different from skewing the curriculum program to focus on test performance above everything else. At a recent curriculum conference I attended, Prof. Bob Lingard reported that in the UK the emphasis on national testing has had this same effect — where schools are just teaching to a fairly narrow band of curriculum content that is going to be tested.

At SOTE we believe it is worthwhile that the children participate in the national tests. It is a good opportunity for them to get a little experience in the more formal setting that these tests offer. It is also useful, being a small school, for us to see how our children are progressing in relation to the state means and the national minimums and for parents to be aware of this also (see SOTE Annual Reports). Furthermore, the tests also supply teachers with valuable information to support the development of teaching and learning programs within the School.

Our approach is to be involved but to not give undue focus to the NAPLAN tests. Giving the tests more focus than is necessary will give the wrong message to the children about what we value. We prepare the children to the extent that they will not be fazed by the format of the tests, but generally focus on the curriculum elements we would normally focus on at that time of the year in the way we normally do — each child learning and progressing at their own pace and working together co-operatively in a warm, supportive environment.

We are concerned that some parents may read too much into the test results from the younger classes. Of course at these levels there is still a lot of learning to do and children progress very much at their own rate at this stage. There are big gaps in development between students so too much comparison is not helpful. It is not a comparative test and the students need not know of the outcome at all.

Children at this age are learning so much in so many different ways and do this best in a supportive, relaxed environment. They will all learn everything they need to learn in time.

About the Author

Richard Waters has been principal of the School of Total Education since 1978. He has taught at both primary and secondary levels and has a particular interest in parent education and the training of teachers. He is also a teacher of senior Study of Society and History.

This article was originally published in the Term 2, 2009 edition of the SOTE Newsletter. (Published on web site: August 2011)