NAPLAN by Dr Tracy Robinson

Dr Tracy Robinson is a senior research fellow at the Monash Centre for Health Research & Implementation.  As a registered nurse and a doctor of psychology, she has extensive experience working in the field of mental health and supporting the wellbeing of young people.  We’re most grateful to her for once again providing an article for this term’s newsletter.
There has been much talk about NAPLAN testing over the past week with research by Dr John Ainley that found over the last decade Year 9 results in reading and numeracy have barely improved. Between 2008 and 2017, numeracy scores across all states and year levels stagnated. Moderate improvements in literacy were identified for some primary schools but were not sustained when students reached high schools. Dr Ainsley’s review is the most comprehensive analysis of NAPLAN data to date and raises some serious questions about the utility of this testing. Originally designed to help governments and schools identify whether students are meeting their key learning outcomes, NAPLAN has now become a source of anxiety and stress for students, their parents and teachers. In fact three state governments have called for a review of NAPLAN because of its potential to impact negatively on teaching and learning – especially because so much attention is now focused on this testing which occurs in Years 3,5,7 and 9.

While no one would disagree that literacy and numeracy are essential to children’s success, NAPLAN testing is coming under increasing scrutiny – not least because it is often used as a measure of a school’s performance – which it is not! In fact, it can be argued that the test results only tell teachers (who do a great job) what they already know in terms of identifying students who are facing challenges in their learning. Of more concern, is the question of whether NAPLAN results might contribute to low self- esteem in very young children who do have the ability to understand the whole context of the assessments. Also, because NAPLAN does not make accommodation for students who are new to Australia or who have spent less than five years speaking English we need to consider whether this is fair on students and schools.

One thing that gets overlooked in this debate is that there are many types of literacy young people need to prepare them for life and the world of work in the 21st century. Data and computer literacy, cultural literacy, emotional literacy and even media literacy which involves building young people’s skills to think critically about different forms of media. Recently, there has been much attention on emotional literacy – the ability to understand and express feelings. This relies on having self-awareness and being able to recognise and manage one’s own feelings. Emotional literacy also includes empathy – being sensitive to other people’s feelings and situations, which is essential for developing communication skills. The term emotional intelligence is sometimes used interchangeably in the academic literature where it has become an area of increasing interest and research. Emotionally intelligent people are able to identify, use, understand and regulate emotions (their own and other people’s). In the world of business and management it is widely accepted that emotional intelligence/literacy improves relations in organisations and increases the performance of employees and the organisation as a whole. The literature on leadership identifies emotional intelligence as a key attribute of effective leaders.

It is also worth thinking about the relationship between emotional literacy and bullying. Many young people who bully others frequently experience overwhelming feelings of anger, excitement, boredom or even fear and do not know to empathise with their peers who may look or act differently. Some schools now run programs to increase emotional literacy but with all the focus on NAPLAN testing it is hard for schools to make time in an already crowded curriculum.  Is it time to now broaden our understanding of literacy and focus more on skills that build the resilience and emotional wellbeing of young people? In Dr Ainley’s report on NAPLAN, he questions whether we should have more focus on critical thinking and problem-solving skills (in line with international trends). We need to move on from old definitions that focus only on reading literacy. Many schools in Victoria now take a “whole school” approach and allocate more teaching time for reading. It is these kinds of programs and more intensive interventions for young people who are struggling that make the difference – not the NAPLAN testing. And perhaps it’s also time to reflect on the good job our teachers and schools do in terms of supporting our children and ensure they have adequate funding. Instead, we continue to see deep cuts in funding for local schools, despite the Gonski review which held such promise for our education system.