Why NAPLAN Is Failing Our Kids And Our Kids Are Failing NAPLAN

The results from this year’s NAPLAN tests are in.

Australian students have achieved their lowest writing results since the implementation of the NAPLAN testing, with more than 17 percent of Australian year 9 students failing to meet the national minimum standard.

Introduced in 2008, the NAPLAN program was meant to enable fair and informed comparisons of performance between states and territories, and to measure continued annual trends in literacy and numeracy across the nation.

READ MORE: NOPLAN: Writing Results At Lowest Level Since Test Introduced

Administered in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, the tests are designed to measure three things: how students are performing, whether national literacy and numeracy benchmarks are being achieved, and how well the curriculum is working to achieve these benchmarks in Australian schools; essentially obtaining and analysing data that could pinpoint deficiencies in education and solutions which would help to overcome these learning deficits.

Australian students have achieved their lowest writing results since the implementation of the NAPLAN testing. (Image: Getty)

In and of itself, NAPLAN testing is a viable assessment of educational achievement. So where does the problem lie -- in NAPLAN testing, or in the curriculum?

Or in the fact that the testing has, effectively, replaced the curriculum?

As a parent of four school-aged children and also a qualified literacy instructor, I have seen first-hand the pressure both teachers and students feel to perform to an outcome, rather than reap the benefits of broad-spectrum learning. Since its introduction, we have seen the original intent of NAPLAN become less a diagnostic tool and more a measuring stick shrouded in competition and comparison, with time and resources diverted from curriculum and attention instead placed on learning exercises intended only to improve the outcome of NAPLAN scores.

The Queensland Studies Authority has stated that such testing encourages “methods of teaching that promote shallow and superficial learning rather than deep conceptual understanding and the kind of complex knowledge and skills needed in modern, information-based societies.”

In other words, NAPLAN testing is creating an education system which no longer strives to educate, only enable students with the correct answers to a test which is now little more than a marketing tool. If the results show anything, it’s that our system isn’t working.

This isn’t about our kids failing the NAPLAN, this is about the education system failing our kids.

NAPLAN results over the last 10 years have shown little or no change; not surprising when we consider there has been no change in the way students are taught -- the results continue to reveal a decline in literacy standards while we persist with the same method of teaching and expect a different result. Australian Catholic University senior research fellow Kevin Donnelly says NAPLAN results will not improve while schools and teachers were being forced to adopt “meaningless fads like whole language, personalised learning, progression points and teachers as ‘guides by the side’”.

READ MORE: NAPLAN Explained: What Exactly Are These Tests?

My training as a literacy instructor is grounded in phonetic-based learning. Having tutored numerous students from diverse backgrounds and with varied skill, aptitude and capability, I have seen how every student I have worked with has struggled with literacy understanding due to the whole language learning approach. As soon as I have implemented phonics-based learning with them, their understanding and enthusiasm of the English language has improved beyond measure.

This isn’t about our kids failing the NAPLAN, this is about the education system failing our kids. (Image: Getty)

The whole language approach doesn’t involve students learning to combine sounds, but rather memorise a comprehensive list of sight words “as a whole” where the premise lies in hopefully acquiring enough immersion in reading, writing and being read to that spelling and grammar will come in their own time and of their own accord; a system I believe is only beneficial for visual learners or students with exceptional memories.

According to an article from Evidence For Learning, phonics-based teaching has been beneficial for the development and improvement of literacy skills, with the greatest gains occurring in the early years of schooling. There is also evidence to show its effectiveness in students with learning difficulties, those on the autism spectrum, and those from non-English speaking backgrounds. The whole language method of learning is said to have less empirical support and to promote guessing by learners.

READ MORE: Year 5 Student Attempted Suicide Over NAPLAN Test Stress, Principal Says

Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of Language at the Speed of Sight, believes the solution for improving literacy standards is to reintroduce phonics to students, claiming our education systems are "favouring methods which are ineffective and leave many children with an inadequate ability to read".

As soon as phonics-based learning is implemented, I have seen students' understanding and enthusiasm of the English language improve beyond measure. (Image: Getty)

Alongside that, president of the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards, Tom Alegounarias, believes every teacher should be able to teach phonics explicitly and systematically, even if some students learned to read without being taught the letter-sound relationships. “Teaching phonics isn’t about ideology or philosophy, it’s about evidence," he said. "Doctors don’t have a belief in penicillin, penicillin works. Phonics works, full stop.”

In response to this year’s NAPLAN results, Peter Goss, the Grattan Institute’s school education expert, has said, “The minimum standard is so low it should be raised or scrapped, so if kids aren't even meeting that it's a real concern.”

If the purpose of the NAPLAN program is to recognise and overcome deficiencies in our education system then the question is, why have we continued to document the decline of Australia’s literacy standards for the past decade yet refused to implement change to our national curriculum?

The NAPLAN, for all it has failed students, has succeeded in bringing to our attention an epidemic of illiteracy which I believe is a national crisis in our education system. We have the evidence for the benefits of phonics-based learning. What will it take for us to be concerned enough to do something about it?