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Parents are being warned that almost a third of children could fall below new NAPLAN proficiency standards, with an overhaul of the national assessment providing what one expert said was the wake-up call Australia desperately needs.
Concerned parents are being urged to speak with teachers directly when student results are released early this term, with the new rating system projected to put up to 30 per cent of children in the lowest two bands of performance.
This year’s NAPLAN ditches the previous national minimum standard, which was deemed too low in comparison with other international educational tests. It reduces the previous 10 assessment bands to four proficiency categories: exceeding; strong; developing; and needs additional support.
But experts say the new categories are unclear and have called for more work to compare results to previous years, with one dismissing the 2023 data as “obsolete in terms of its teaching value”.
More than 1.3 million Australian students had their reading, writing and maths skills assessed in March, earlier than usual as part of sweeping changes for the annual test.
Parents will still be able to assess their child in comparison to the national average and their year level, but 2023 data will not be compared to those from previous years, making it difficult to interpret progress for students and schools.
What the new bands mean
Exceeding: The student’s result exceeds expectations at the time of testing.
Strong: The student’s result meets challenging but reasonable expectations at the time of testing.
Developing: The student’s result indicates that they are working towards expectations at the time of testing.
Needs additional support: The student’s result indicates that they are not achieving the learning outcomes expected at the time of testing. They are likely to need additional support to progress satisfactorily.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has previously said work undertaken to set the new progress levels found about 30 per cent of students would not have met the proficiency benchmark in 2022. About 7.3 per cent of students last year were, on average, below the national minimum standard.
“A child whose results fall within the ‘developing’ or ‘needs additional support’ categories will not have met proficiency,” a spokesperson said.
Jordana Hunter, program director of education at the Grattan Institute, said the changes to NAPLAN reporting could be “the wake-up call Australia desperately needs”.
But she was concerned the new proficiency levels were confusing.
“Developing” could be easily misinterpreted as a positive when the student had not met the benchmark for their year level, while “strong” could also mean the student had only just met expectations and was still performing below the national average, she said.
Keeping parents informed: Mother Kelly Toyne with her grade five daughter Avery and Christ the King School principal Louise Vakirevic.Credit: Jason South
Hunter said NAPLAN was still one of the few reliable ways to measure how students were tracking but more needed to be done to link the new results to previous years.
“This work should be a priority for government so that we don’t waste the huge time and financial investment in NAPLAN over the last 13 years,” she said.
NAPLAN – the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy – was introduced in 2008 to test the literacy and numeracy skills of Australian students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9.
Education ministers agreed to the new assessment standards in February after a review in 2020 revealed fewer Australian students were meeting minimum standards in international surveys compared to NAPLAN results.
Australian students recorded their worst-ever results in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), failing for the first time to exceed the OECD average in maths while also tumbling in reading and science.
Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said the changes were developed in consultation with teachers and other education experts, as well as parents. He acknowledged that more students would need additional support under the new, stronger standards.
“The next step is to provide that additional support,” he said. “That’s why I have said we will tie funding to the things that will help students who fall behind to catch up.”
Ange Rogers, a mathematics education lecturer at Melbourne’s RMIT University, said the overhaul of categories rendered the 2023 result mere “point in time” data, with schools unable to interpret their progress compared to previous years.
“Considering that point in time was March and we are receiving the results in July, it is effectively obsolete in terms of its teaching value,” she said.
Rogers was also concerned the new proficiency standards could be confusing, particularly in the “strong” category.
“I think it can give parents an inaccurate sense of where their child is sitting,” she said. “You can be ‘strong’ but be below the national average. I wouldn’t consider a child sitting below the national average as ‘strong’ in numeracy or any area.”
Australian Catholic University’s Jessica Holloway, an expert in education data and accountability, said the initial results may be confronting for some, but she urged parents to speak directly to their children’s teachers.
“Conversations that parents have with their children about the results can really change the way that child thinks about themselves, not only in the immediate time but also for the future,” she said.
“Teachers are the ones who are on the ground. They’re the ones who know the students better than anybody. And they’re able to speak, really expertly, on that student’s progress and achievement level.”
Holloway said NAPLAN was originally devised as a randomised test to “take the temperature” of Australia’s education system but individualised testing had placed too much emphasis on the results.
“I don’t think that we have a broad evidence base to suggest that emphasising testing is a way to improve education,” she said.
Rogers agreed there was too much pressure surrounding NAPLAN.
“As a parent I don’t usually bother showing my children their NAPLAN results,” she said.
“I would love NAPLAN to be a pop quiz that just occurs on a random day … there is too much pressure and hype around it. At its core, it is a tool to gather data on how the Australian education system is travelling.”
Louise Johnston, principal of Christ the King School in the Geelong suburb of Newcomb, said the school had continued to improve its NAPLAN results over the past five years and she was not concerned that would change.
“It’s one set of data, on one day,” she said. “Of course, we do track it year upon year, but essentially, this year we’re just getting a new set of baseline data and we’ll be able to continue the type of tracking we’ve done in the past, with this new set moving forward.”
Johnston said the main change was in how the data was provided to parents.
“When they get their results … no matter whether we’re using the old system or the new system, some parents will have questions and other parents will be satisfied and trusting the school that their child’s point of need is being met.”
Kelly Toyne has three children who have sat NAPLAN, including two this year at Christ the King.
She said she wasn’t expecting any surprises with the results because she stayed in regular contact with the school about her children’s progress.
“I think it’s a piece in the puzzle,” she said of the test. “It’s one of the many ways we can gauge where they’re at.”
At Braybrook College in Melbourne’s west, one of Victoria’s 20 highest-performing schools in NAPLAN between 2019 and 2022, principal Kelly Panousieris said there may be a change in results under the new standards but she wasn’t concerned.
“It’s a point-in-time test. it’s not what we base everything that we do on.”
Students receive results this month. National and state data is released in August. Detailed schools data is not released until next year.
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