A Flinders University-led study compared students’ experiences at two schools with different approaches to NAPLAN. The first school intensively prepared students for the tests; the second continued its normal program of teaching and learning.
Thirty-five students in years 3, 5, 7, and 9 participated across the two schools. Students were interviewed by researchers, and expressed their feelings about NAPLAN through words and drawings.
The lead author of the study, Dr Katharine Swain from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University, says every student’s experience was different, but that the contrast between the schools was stark.
She cautioned that the schools surveyed are unique and the study should not be used to generalise about all schools’ preparation routines.
Nonetheless, she believes it provides valuable insight.
“One can speculate that there are other schools engaging in similar ways, and schools ranging everywhere along the spectrum in between and perhaps beyond,” she said.
Dr Swain, a Flinders lecturer in middle schooling, says that at the first school NAPLAN preparation commenced in weeks one and two of the school year and involved “two-thirds of each day in Years 3, 5 and 7 classrooms (on) testing, marking and re-testing literacy and numeracy concepts pertinent to NAPLAN testing”.
As such, she considers it likely that the way NAPLAN is implemented is “having a significant effect on the experiences of many students, potentially leading to disengagement from learning.”
She says that for all the debate over NAPLAN, little attention is given to students’ perceptions of the tests. The study was designed to give a voice to the students participating.
“Relationships develop between students and teachers when teachers genuinely listen to the voices of their students and students believe that what they say truly matters.”
Multiple students at the first school expressed dissatisfaction with their teachers, or even fear, often connected to pressure to perform well on practice tests. A year 3 student complained that “there is less games now and less art” than in year 2.
Students variously found NAPLAN and NAPLAN preparation “boring”, “horrible”, and “exciting”.
Students across year levels noted stress from the time pressure imposed by the tests.
One student found the tests “easy” and said they did not challenge him: “Sometimes I just want to stay in bed. I don’t like the easy work, like number facts, every single day we have to do them.”
Children drawing’s about NAPLAN at the first school often conveyed ”sadness, fear and anxiety”.
They also “complained of sleepless nights and feeling sick preceding the testing period and feeling uncomfortable and tired during the testing period. Students complained of watery eyes and eye strain, sore hands and headaches.”
Students at the first school suggested that if they had a choice in how they were assessed, they would prefer demonstrations of their learning, such as building something or making a Powerpoint presentation.
The common theme was a preference for “assessment which is thoroughly explained with clear expectations … not assessment which is externally set and marked, such as NAPLAN.”
In contrast, the second school changed very little in response to NAPLAN. Students were introduced to the NAPLAN test format and relevant content just two weeks before the tests, and the curriculum was “barely altered.”
Students at the second school “enjoyed spending time with the teachers” and appeared to enjoy learning at school.
They reported minimal stress or pressure associated with NAPLAN. While some Year 5 students saw the increased focus on NAPLAN in the fortnight before the tests as an inconvenience, they did not blame their teachers.
Curriculum at the second school remained focused on tasks connected to students’ lives and interests.
They were involved in “research, design and problem solving” through such projects as investigating “famous inventors and inventions through history.”
In the lead-up to the tests, students at the second school showed fewer signs of fear or anxiety. Although some were “frightened and nervous”, “anxious”, or “confused”, others were “excited”, “happy”, or “ready”.
The only physical reaction commonly reported was feeling sick in the lead up to the tests.
Students at both schools seemed unsettled by knowledge that the government was somehow involved in the tests, and “spoke of government as something to be feared”.
Swain, K., Pendergast, D., & Cumming, J. (2018). ‘Student experiences of NAPLAN’: sharing insights from two school sites, The Australian Educational Researcher.
Article by the Media Centre for Education Research Australia (MCERA), based at Flinders University. MCERA is an independent, not-for-profit organisation, providing a conduit between education research and the media to better inform the public on issues in education.