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We need to test NAPLAN for its effects on wellbeing

Every year NAPLAN tests come under the microscope and last year the media was awash with allegations of teachers cheatingparents refusing to allow their kids to take the test, and principals selecting new enrolments based on NAPLAN scores. 

With stories like this it’s not surprising that anyone who wanted to condemn NAPLAN got their obligatory 3 minute soundbite onto Morning TV. Bold statements like “NAPLAN harms our kids for life” at breakfast time, make for essential viewing for the mums and dads of every 8 – 14 year old in the country!

Yet a recent publication from the Whitlam Institute suggested things might not be quite as bad as they seem… It stated:

“With respect to student wellbeing, the number and range of studies dealing with this issue directly are more limited. The authors of this report were not able to find any scientific evidence relating to the impact of high stakes testing on the well-being of children in the Australian context, although some examples of case studies occur in Athanasou (2010) and there are instances of anecdotal evidence which have been reported in the media. These include claims of stress, bedwetting and anxiety disorders arising from the stress associated with high stakes testing (O’Keeffe, 2011), as well as claims of suicides related to the impact of the Higher School Certificate in NSW (Snow 2006).”

 I’m not writing this as an advocate for standardised testing – although I do believe it has its place in education (just not in the manner that the government or media would have us believe).

Rather I’m concerned that the report states there has been little in the way of research in this area, and as such we can only rely on anecdotal evidence and our own common-sense – that suggests in its current form standardised testing seems to be a source of stress and anxiety in our school communities.

This is a concern as standardised testing is front and centre in the government’s vision of education reform and will continue to be used to compare schools’ results on a local and international scale.

Whilst we might tolerate government’s lack of academic acumen in this regard, we need to ensure that it does not come at the expense of our students’ wellbeing.

I’m calling on researchers to begin looking seriously into the impact that standardised testing does have on the wellbeing of students and their teachers.

Author: Dan Haesler, he is a teacher, writer and speaker at the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Young People seminar at the Gold Coast. He writes for the Sydney Morning Herald and blogs at http://danhaesler.com/ and tweets at @danhaesler

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4 Responses to We need to test NAPLAN for its effects on wellbeing

  1. Without standardised testing, we would not be able to assess the impact of government expenditure on important national programs such as KidsMatter Primary, which focuses on promoting a whole-school approach to supporting the mental health and wellbeing of our children. In a recent Australian article (Dix et al., 2012) that linked KidsMatter outcomes with NAPLAN results, it showed that schools that implemented KidsMatter well, had significantly higher NAPLAN outcomes from their students. This supports research internationally that ‘happy kids are better learners’. While this work is not specifically looking at the impact on children of ‘the test’ it does give further justification why standardised testing is important for informing government policy and funding decisions.
    Dr Katherine Dix
    Flinders University

    • Nick says:

      I thought that testing and assessing students was about student learning? If NAPLAN’s aim (justification as you put it) is to provide data to support Government policy I would be disappointed. Testing can serve a purpose but if that purpose is to rank schools, justify government programs/spending etc then we are hardly heading in the right direction.

  2. Dan Haesler says:

    Dr Dix,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree standardised testing has its place in education and this was not an anti-NAPLAN rant. And indeed I regularly cite the research that shows happy kids are better learners.

    Rather the point of the article is I believe we need to see what impact our implementation of NAPLAN has on the wellbeing of kids.

    For example ranking of schools – too often no attention is paid to what effect seeing their school at the bottom of the table might have on a student’s wellbeing.

    What impact does “high stakes” testing have, particularly on our younger kids?

    What impact does the media overage have? If kids can see so many people saying how bad these tests are, what do they make of this?

    Also there have been accounts of on the day of NAPLAN.

    What impact does all this have on our kids?

    I don’t know.

    Cheers, Dan

  3. I’m just plain disappointed in the way my sons school has shifted their focus from national curriculum to intensely NAPLAN focused. My son has dyslexia and is starting to see just how different he is from his peers. He us often morose and withdrawn about it despite our love and support and input/involvement with his education. This said, he is in the 93rd percentile for his intelligence/awareness. The NAPLAN doesn’t accommodate children in this category- extra time simply means a protracted period of misery while he is sitting there struggling to articulate what he could much more eloquently vocalize.
    Agreed that some form of testing needs to be in place but certainly not with such emphasis and fanfare.

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