New NAPLAN targets a postive step for individual schools

Dr Janet Dutton
Sarah Nicholson
4 July 2024
Faculty of Arts


Opinion: Following the NSW Government's scrapping of existing NAPLAN targets to report on student improvements, Dr Janet Dutton examines the advantages of the new plan where principals have the power to choose the achievement goals that work best for their own schools.

In March this year almost half a million New South Wales (NSW) primary and secondary students took the 2024 National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.

NAPLAN assesses students' proficiency in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 with standardised tests, and is centrally administered and marked. This allows for achievement to be monitored by ranking each student against their peers around Australia.

Each student's results place them in one of four performance bands. Under the provisions of the School Success Model, introduced in 2020 to improve performance across the state's 2200 government schools, the Department of Education was also using the results to set aspirational goals for schools and teachers.

Schools were assigned improvement targets - or 'stretch' targets - relating to the number of pupils each institution could raise into the top two NAPLAN achievement bands. Additional support was provided to struggling schools. Targets were set based on the school's improvement trajectory and how their outcomes compare with similar schools, and those that did not meet targets were afforded stronger system support.

While some saw 'stretch' targets as a move towards transparency in reporting student improvement, it was not universally well received. Critics highlighted that the process challenged principal autonomy and provided a blunt snapshot-in-time instrument to judge academic progress. They also argued that over-reliance on high stakes testing could negatively impact staff and student well-being.

In changes announced this week by NSW Education Minister Ben Carroll, when students sit the next round of NAPLAN tests in March 2025, schools will no longer be subject to stretch targets.

New agency for schools on setting measures

Instead, the Education Department is giving principals the authority to nominate the numeracy and literacy growth measures that work for their students and school community.

The decision does not reject the role of 'big' data – such as the numbers collected by NAPLAN and Higher School Certificate examinations – but acknowledges that large-scale standardised test targets may not be sufficient.

The shift to being able to use 'small' data, the data gathered internally from the work of students and teachers, is a strength-based approach and lets principals report in a way that works for their schools to reflect the growth of all students.

This change not only speaks to the partnership between the Department of Education and school leaders, which is a positive step, but values school principals as leaders and recognises teacher professionalism and knowledge.

I like the notion of growth measures as it aligns with teachers' conceptualisation of student learning, allows for a more authentic way of reporting gains and achievements, and appreciates that a school community may perceive student development in different ways in different settings.

Teachers know their communities best

The concept of growth aligns with the way teachers see their roles. Teachers see themselves as nurturers with the driving motivation of supporting students to learn, and measuring growth is a strong affirmation of the profession of teaching while recognising the values of the school community.

All schools want to lift their students and the reporting changes will not preclude ambition or aspiration, nor will they diminish the transparency NAPLAN was created to provide. It's about selecting measurements of growth that are fit for a particular educational setting.

I anticipate schools will continue using NAPLAN results as an indication of growth, and to evaluate programs and obtain a granular understanding of what students can do, and parents will continue to get the same reporting of their student's performance.

While critics say it's a deliberate attempt to reduce transparency, that's not true. It might not be as easy to compare schools, but I argue that receiving a strong report on how students are growing is more important than easily lining up schools.

This change means data selected for measuring school and student growth is more likely to be fit for purpose, holistic, and able to reflect the development of all students rather than just those in the top two achievement bands.

Dr Janet Dutton Macquarie University School of Education

Dr Janet Dutton, pictured above, is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Macquarie University.


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