Our Thoughts on NAPLAN

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Marilyn Smith explores NAPLAN, traditional testing methods and their shortfalls

This year, NAPLAN tests are preceded by a particularly damning analysis of the writing component. Les Perelman, a retired professor from MIT University in the US has reviewed many such tests worldwide and has published his findings. In his essay, he describes the Australian writing test as “the worst one of the 10 or 12 of the international tests that I’ve studied in depth. It’s by far the most absurd and the least valid of any test that I’ve seen.”

This excites a certain gleeful validation for people such as myself who have long criticised the NAPLAN testing regime. However, it is deeply concerning to confront the realisation that children are rigorously trained to produce poor writing.

“Its focus on low-level skills causes it to de-emphasise the key components of effective communication…. It is reductive and anachronistic.”

Perelman’s essay is worth reading in full. It raises the more general problem that the actual skills, knowledge and understanding that our society needs are very difficult, time-consuming and expensive to assess. They simply cannot be assessed by generic easily ranked, one-size-fits-all tests. So rather than develop more appropriate and sophisticated means of genuine assessment, we stick with the sort of learning that can be assessed in the familiar, efficient ways of our own school days. Examples of such are the low-level retrieval of facts or processes and homogenised opinions, neatly divisible into right and wrong.

This mismatch between what children need to learn and what can be assessed by conventional methods is a gaping chasm. It is increasingly evident to tertiary institutions and employers who are recognising that schools, in their blind determination to post ever better academic results, are producing graduates who may know all there is to know about the best method to hunt a sabre-toothed tiger, but are completely ill equipped for the contemporary world beyond school.

It is for this reason (among many others) that Preshil has moved to replace the VCE with the more holistic, collaborative, skills and research-focused International Baccalaureate.

Getting back to NAPLAN, Perelman advises students “Never write like this except for essay tests like the NAPLAN” – are we actually at a point where we need to say this to students about everything they have to learn at school? “You’ll need to know this for the exam but it doesn’t have any application in real life. You’ll have to learn that for yourself outside of school….”

Preshil has always focused the learning on the world our students live in. Our curriculum is shaped to develop skills and understandings which don’t lend themselves easily to comparative tests and rote learning. To quote our Courage document: “Preshil will continue to challenge its children to think and to question, to act and to speak out, and to ultimately grow into thoughtful, responsible, informed, passionate and articulate adults who will do what they can to influence the world for the better.”

I’m not convinced that the NAPLAN tests will reward these attributes.

Image courtesy of John Ditchburn at Inkcinct Cartoons.

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