NAPlanning – where does NAPLAN fit?

NAPLAN results are out and with them the usual responses.

Politicians use the results to make international comparisons, justify reform agendas and cajole teachers and schools to work harder. Parenting experts lament it as an expensive waste of time and money and warn of the dangers of labelling children, and newspapers make clumsy attempts to rank schools.

But while the deep divisions about the value and meaning of NAPLAN persist, each of these views shares a fundamental misconception about assessment. That is, NAPLAN results fall at the end of the teaching and learning cycle.

This is a misconception challenged by most teachers, notwithstanding its enduring appeal to editors of the Sunday newspapers hungry for a headline.

For effective teachers, NAPLAN represents only one of the starting points of learning. Sure, teachers look closely at the data and celebrate the growth charts, but they are equally interested in identifying areas to target for improvement. In other words, teachers mainly use NAPLAN results as a departure point in planning the next steps in learning.

Or as I call it, NAPlanning.

That assessment should move to the front of the learning cycle is counterintuitive to most. Many of us have grown up with the experience of being tested on our understanding and knowledge at the end of a unit of work. But as they say, wouldn’t it be better for the cook to test the soup before the guest consumes it?

And while end of course judgements are no doubt important, as a stand-alone use of assessment they provide a very narrow view of student achievement and tell us almost nothing about progress. In fact, it is probably not what the designers of NAPLAN had in mind when it was introduced.

NAPLAN offers very specific, helpful information about literacy and numeracy mastery across a cohort and individuals as they performed on the day of the test. But let me add a caveat.

Teachers sift through assessment data all day, every day. Their stock in trade is the development of a well trained eye to spot success, identify gaps in learning and make judgements about the next steps. We do this through worked examples, practical work, questioning techniques, class tests and written work. And NAPLAN.

In the perpetual cycle of assessing, planning and progress, the fuss made over a single piece of the assessment puzzle is often bemusing to teachers. And while the spotlight falls on us for a few days at the end of August each year the truth is that in schools, everyday is results day.