Is NAPLAN turning into a HSC for younger students?

Is NAPLAN turning into a HSC for younger students?

We were once told that NAPLAN was just ‘one tool of many’ that teachers could use to assist them in assessing their students’ progress.

However, NAPLAN is fast becoming the only tool that matters leaving teachers under-the-pump to focus “more on testing, instead of more teaching”.

“All NAPLAN has achieved so far is a significant increase in anxiety for Year 9 students, with its focus on a narrow band of measurable skills distracting from the creative and lateral thinking central to success in later life.”

Check today’s ABC News release below, written by a former teacher and parent of a Year 9 student.

James Phelps

The NAPLAN literacy link has created a 'four-year HSC' for stressed-out teenagers

Everyone who is anyone in New South Wales education (outside of the State Government and its bureaucracy) seems in agreement: the linkage of Year 9 NAPLAN results with HSC eligibility is an ill-conceived mistake which amounts to more testing, instead of more teaching.

And Rob Stokes, the NSW Education Minister left holding the can for a scheme introduced by his predecessor, is ducking for cover.

In 2017, Year 9 students in NSW have for the first time been required to reach a band 8 in NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests to "pre-qualify" to earn the HSC credential in 2020.

Those who did not — and that is more than 60 per cent — can sit and re-sit online tests to be eligible for that precious piece of paper which marks the exit to 12 years of school.

Private and state school principals in NSW are adamant that the scheme is not based on educationally sound principles, and that there was little or no consultation before its introduction.

Obsessed with numbers

Chris Presland, the president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council, which represents 500 principals in state schools has not, he says, personally come across a single educator who favours the plan.

What is NAPLAN and is it important?

  • The National Assessment Program tests the literacy and numeracy skills of students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9
  • Students cannot pass or fail the assessment
  • The annual testing is designed to help governments and schools gauge whether students are meeting key educational outcomes
  • The results help identify strengths and address areas that need to be improved
  • Schools and parents can see how an individual student's learning is tracking compared to their classmates and the national average

All it has achieved so far, he maintains, is a "significant increase in anxiety" for Year 9 students, with its focus on a narrow band of measurable skills distracting from the creative and lateral thinking central to success in later life.

While NAPLAN is a valuable diagnostic tool for teachers, Australia is obsessed with number crunching its results and inter-state competition, Mr Presland says.

And Paul Teys, who is outgoing chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools, representing about 120 private school principals, says the additional emphasis on NAPLAN results is a "complete waste of energy, a distraction for students, and completely unnecessary".

The Government does not consult well at all and when it does, the time frame is much too short, he claims.

"The Minister is not interested, and nor is NESA (the NSW Education Standards Authority)," says Mr Teys, who is also principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School.

"It's a political game. By making it high stakes, they are hoping everyone pays attention, and NSW NAPLAN results improve, then it will look better for the Minister."

Chorus of opposition

Principals are not alone, but are part of a chorus of opposition, including the NSW Parents' Council (representing parents in about 70 independent schools), Catholic educators, and lobbyists for children with learning difficulties and other issues which can hamper their education, such as ADHD.

Several academics — among them from the University of NSW, Sydney and UTS — have joined the debate in print and online, expressing dismay at the additional stress and fear of failure placed on teenagers at an ever-younger age.

They point out that while universities do not need the HSC to determine entry (they use the ATAR score), the weaker students at the lower end of the academic spectrum who do may now have to leave at the end of 12 years without a credential to prove they stayed the distance.

For Stephen Grieve, the executive director of the NSW Parents' Council, the upshot of the new dispensation has been what he calls a four-year HSC, and an "avalanche of stress" for younger teenagers who are being "bullied" by it.

He maintains that the real problem is the government-mandated and over-crowded school curriculum, which leaves little time to ensure the basics are taught.

"No amount of testing what you actually haven't taught, because teachers don't have the time, is going to improve literacy and numeracy. The curriculum is failing."

'A spiral of despair'

Educators in the Catholic education system are concerned with the welfare of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and "equity issues" that may emerge as a result of the new system; not getting through the first-time round in year nine may lead to self-fulfilling low expectations and then not getting an HSC as a result may contribute to "a spiral of despair".

And lobbyists for students with learning disabilities or other disadvantages affecting learning (such as ADHD) argue that at-risk students need more help with literacy, not more tests to discover what their teachers already know about them.

Now that the minister responsible for the whole mess, former NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli, has announced that he's leaving politics, his replacement Rob Stokes is left carrying the can.

Asked who the Government had relied on in devising the scheme, his spokesman said the change was introduced "before Rob (Mr Stokes) took on the portfolio" and referred the question to NESA.

A NESA spokesman furnished a list of 24 stakeholders who had been consulted, among them the associations listed above.

The spokesman defended the plan with reference to the Federal Government, which he said had in 2016 said that it would within five years require all Year 12 students to meet minimum standards and with a 51-page document, An Overview of Evidence for Stronger HSC standards.

What emerges is a curriculum which is aiming to be all things to be all people in a confusing internet age.

Teachers are so pressured by competing demands, new paperwork and testing regimes that they are struggling to do what they should do, which is teach the specifics of their subject specialty while having an eye to literacy and numeracy at all times.

A new emphasis on NAPLAN, which is virtually making it a new and separate HSC subject, is not going to solve the problem.