NAPLAN to stop reporting students’ progress
Occasionally, governments make bewildering decisions.
An example is the recent decision of education ministers to stop providing teachers and parents with information about a student’s progress in literacy and numeracy through the years of school. Under this decision, key stakeholders will no longer be able to use NAPLAN to track a student’s growth in these crucial areas of learning from year 3 to year 9, or to evaluate the adequacy of that growth.
To understand what has been decided, consider a student who made steady progress in reading from year 3 to year 9. In year 3 they had a NAPLAN reading score of 355, placing them in reading band 3. By year 9, they had a score of 505, placing them in reading band 6:
Under the ministerial decision, progress through the NAPLAN bands will no longer be reported. Instead, the teacher and parent/s of this particular student will simply be told at each year level that their reading is ‘developing’. The explanation for this change, given by an ACARA spokesperson, is that parents found bands ‘confusing’.
The original designers of NAPLAN saw value in teachers and parents being able to monitor a student’s long-term reading development. They broke with the tradition of using assessments simply to grade students on each year-level curriculum, recognising that grades are incapable of providing information about progress over time.
The recent decision turns back the clock to year-specific grades – not labelled A to E, but Exceeding, Strong, Developing, and Needs Additional Support.
Another perceived advantage of NAPLAN bands was that they would provide a basis for communicating and illustrating the nature of progress in key aspects of literacy and numeracy. For example, it would be possible to describe and provide examples of band 4 reading skills and of the kinds of texts that students at that level of reading development were likely to be able to read and understand. Bands would represent absolute levels of proficiency, independent of age or year level – a little like AMEB (Australian Music Examinations Board) grades or levels of swimming proficiency.
ACARA never fully capitalised on this potential. If parents found bands ‘confusing’, perhaps it was because they were never adequately explained.
Instead, a parent who is now told that their child’s reading is ‘developing’ in each of years 3, 5, 7 and 9 is never likely to know what that means; ‘developing’ will have a different meaning at each year level. And, given the lack of progress in explaining bands, it seems highly unlikely that ACARA will develop substantive explanations of its 16 new year-specific grades.
Fortunately, there are widely-used assessment materials available to Australian schools that provide information about long-term student progress. These materials are designed not to grade students at each year level, but to establish and describe the points individuals have reached in their ongoing learning and development; to identify best next steps for teaching; and to monitor student growth across the years of school. Unfortunately, NAPLAN will no longer be one of these.