Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

NAPLAN Data on Writing: A Picture of Accelerating Negative Change

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

NAPLAN Data on Writing: A Picture of Accelerating Negative Change

Article excerpt


Australia's NAPLAN has become what White (2013) has characterised as 'a political football' (p. 1) and a multimillion dollar investment in education. More than a decade after the country's first move to large scale standardised testing, NAPLAN investment has generated national longitudinal data across Years 3-9 which offers a wide range of opportunities to examine educational outcomes across successive phases of education. The measurement goal of NAPLAN has come to the fore in schooling policy, research, and classroom practice, gaining widespread public attention through popular media. Currently however, it remains a largely untapped educational resource for informing improvement at classroom level. Indeed, little is known about how teachers stitch together instruction for writing for NAPLAN assessment purposes and their wider program of writing instruction within and across year levels. Similarly, there are no large scale research studies of the consistencies (and inconsistencies) between individual students' NAPLAN reported literacy results in writing and school reports of achievement. The challenge is to explore and optimise the potential of NAPLAN assessment instruments and the data, both within a year and longitudinally, for informing improvement strategies. To this end this paper takes a concentrated focus on reported NAPLAN writing results and reveals that concerning percentages of students are falling below the benchmark.

The emerging interest in data

A hallmark of education in the past three decades has been the strengthening commitment to census or whole cohort standardised testing, as distinct from sample testing. In this period successive governments at state and federal levels have demonstrated insatiable appetites for data as part of moves towards evidence-based education policy. This development had been evident earlier in several countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Singapore and China. At the time of writing, NAPLAN results across Australia are widely understood in policy, schools and the wider community as central to public accountability. NAPLAN has been normalised to the point where it is accepted as a fixed feature of schooling policy, even though critical discussions about its impact on, and more specifically, benefits to students and teachers has been limited. For example, it is not uncommon to hear teachers talking about 'teaching The NAPLAN' as though the assessment had its own prescribed curriculum content, knowledge and skills.

While debates continue as to whether NAPLAN assessments in Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 are properly characterised as low or high stakes, it is clear that they have generated high levels of public engagement and discussion about intra- and inter-state and-school performance. In part, this engagement can be traced back to the ambitious goal for literacy and numeracy that all Australian Education Ministers agreed to at a meeting of the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA): 'That every child leaving primary school should be numerate and be able to read, write and spell at an appropriate level' and the related sub-goal:

'That every child commencing school from 1998 will achieve a minimum acceptable literacy and numeracy standard within four years' (Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs, 1998a).

This initiative was consistent with the belief that children in Australian schools should be entitled to learn to write and read and further, that the teaching of writing and reading is core business in schooling. This is not a new claim. While debates about effective strategies for teaching literacy have spanned several decades, there is widespread recognition in research, policy and practice that, 'The teaching of writing, like that of reading, is a fundamental responsibility of schooling, and what teachers do is very important in ensuring that children learn to write, as well as read' (Christie & Derewianka, 2008, p. …

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