Do NAPLAN results paint an accurate picture of student learning?

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

Aussie students had a poor showing in this year’s NAPLAN results, but some experts say this data doesn’t paint an accurate picture of student learning. 

Thanks to a national review recommending “testing modernisation”, this year’s NAPLAN migrated online and implemented a revamped, tougher set of criteria.

As a result, 65 per cent of students fell into the ‘exceeding’ and ‘strong’ categories, 23 per cent and 10 per cent were in the ‘developing’ and ‘needs additional support’ levels respectively. 

But Associate Professor Robyn Cox, Lecturer in Literary Education at RMIT University, says schools shouldn’t solely rely on this data to assess student ability. 

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“…NAPLAN data should not drive all the work of schools and school leaders,” she said in a statement.

“It is a particular kind of data collected in a ‘single take’ manner, and other school-based and classroom-based evidence needs to be held up as just as important.

“School leaders need to be confident to use NAPLAN data as only a single form of evidence and not feel pressured into counting NAPLAN above, for example, good practice in the classroom and classroom-level evidence.”

‘Moving goalposts’

Dr Ange Rogers, a Lecturer in Numeracy and Mathematics at RMIT University, said the new adaptive online testing model “raises real issues for schools” when assessing student learning.

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“Instead of all year three students being presented the same items, the items are adapted according to the answers students give,” she said in a statement.

“If they answer some ‘hard’ items correctly in a ‘testlet’, they will be presented with more challenging questions to more accurately determine their level of understanding.”

According to Dr. Rogers, this “moving of the goalposts” makes it impossible for schools to calculate student progress between previous NAPLAN testing.

“The 2023 year three cohort at a school may be completely different to the 2024 year three cohort (particularly since COVID), so comparing them is not as useful as comparing 2023 Year 3s with the same students who will be in year five in 2025,” she said.

“The new levels created by a panel of experts are an arbitrary benchmark to measure against; some may say it is too high, others too low.”

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Schools shouldn’t focus on student results

While a vital general indicator of the Australian Education system, Dr Rogers says schools shouldn’t place too much emphasis on individual testing results. 

“For me, the data most useful to parents and schools is where students fit in relation to the national average and the middle 60 per cent of students in their year level,” she said.

“I don’t usually bother showing my own children their NAPLAN results. In my experience, the bigger deal you make of NAPLAN, the higher stakes it becomes in their minds. It’s not logistically possible, but I would love NAPLAN to be a pop quiz that occurs on a random day; there is too much pressure and hype around it.”

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.