Parents are becoming more and more disillusioned with the NAPLAN tests. New figures released by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) show record withdrawal rates from the tests across Australia and in most states/territories this year. It suggests that increasing numbers of parents realise that NAPLAN is not compulsory and are unwilling to put their children through the high stress associated with the tests in schools nowadays.
Withdrawal rates have increased in all subjects and in all Year levels tested since 2008. While the percentages of students withdrawn are still small, there has been a remarkable increase. For example, there was a five-fold increase across Australia in the percentage of Year 3 students withdrawn from the numeracy test from 0.5% to 2.5% [Chart 1]. The withdrawal rate for Year 9 students increased eight-fold from 0.3% in 2008 to 2.4% [Chart 2].
Increases occurred in every state and territory. The ACT, Queensland and South Australia have the highest withdrawal rates and had large increases.
In the ACT, the percentage of Year 3 students withdrawn from the numeracy tests increased from 0.8% in 2008 to 4.7% in 2014 [Chart 1]. In Queensland, the percentage withdrawn increased from 0.3% to 4.2%; in South Australia it increased from 0.6% to 3.9% and in Victoria from 0.1% to 2.7%. The smallest increase was in NSW where the percentage withdrawn increased from 0.8% to 1.2%.
There were also large increases in Year 9 students withdrawn. Queensland had the largest increase – from 0.5% to 5.6% [Chart 2]. In the ACT, it increased from 0.3% to 4.8%; in South Australia from 0.2% to 3%; and in Victoria from 0.1% to 2%. There were small increases in NSW, Western Australia and Tasmania.
There are similar withdrawal rates for reading [Charts 3 &4]. However, figures on the increases in reading are only available from 2010 because prior to this the National Report on NAPLAN combined the percentages for withdrawn and absent students. But, even over the smaller period the increases were substantial in several states/territories.
The increase in students withdrawn accounts for a declining trend in the percentage of students sitting the NAPLAN tests since 2008 as there has been little to no change in the percentage of exempt students and students absent on test days. The percentage present for the Year 3 numeracy tests across Australia fell from 94.6% in 2008 to 92.8 in 2014 and from 91.8% to 89.3% in Year 9.
There was only small increase in the percentage of exempt students while the percentage of absent students declined slightly. The percentage of exempt students in Year 3 numeracy increased from 1.7% to 1.9% and from 1.1% to 1.8% in Year 9. The percentage of absent students in Year 3 declined from 3.3% to 2.8% and from 6.8% to 6.5% in Year 9.
There is growing concern in official circles about decreasing participation in NAPLAN. ACARA officials have criticised parents who withdraw their children from NAPLAN. Its chief executive, Dr. Stanley Rabinowitz, said that parents withdrawing their children is a concern because it meant NAPLAN data was not as complete as it could be. He dismissed concerns that the tests were too stressful. ACARA is more concerned about protecting the reliability of its data than recognising the consequences of its tests for the well-being of many students and the school curriculum.
For as long as ACARA continues to ignore the protests of parents about the impact of its high stakes tests on young children and ignore the protests of teachers about the narrowing of the curriculum, its NAPLAN data will become more and more unreliable. Declining participation rates will affect the comparison of results of individual schools, sub-groups of students such as Indigenous and low socio-economic status students and state/territory results as well as trends over time.
For example, schools that would otherwise achieve similar average results could end up with quite different results because some have a low withdrawal rate and others a high rate. Research published by the COAG Reform Council shows that non-participants in NAPLAN tend to be lower scoring students. As a result, schools with high withdrawal rates could end up with higher average NAPLAN schools than otherwise similar schools.
As participation declines, the reliability of the average scores of individual schools will also decrease particularly in small schools where the statistical uncertainty or error band around the average score is relatively large because of the small numbers of students sitting the tests. This increases the unreliability of school rankings and league tables as a guide to school quality.
There are also implications for state-wide comparisons and trends. ACARA uses statistical imputation techniques to estimate test scores for absent and withdrawn students to reduce bias in state-wide comparisons of results. Lower participation rates mean that more and more test scores are imputed by ACARA and this is not as accurate as having students participate in the tests. If a state or territory has a low level of participation then more scores in that jurisdiction will be imputed and this could bias inter-jurisdictional comparisons and trends.
Concern about the reliability of NAPLAN results is one reason why there has been a conspiracy of silence in official circles about the voluntary nature of the tests. From the inception of NAPLAN, education authorities misled parents by pretending the tests are mandatory. Authorities refused to inform parents that the tests are voluntary and failed to institute processes for parents to withdraw their children.
This is now changing. For many years, the ACARA brochure on NAPLAN used in schools failed to inform parents that participation in NAPLAN is not compulsory. Now ACARA has had to acknowledge on its website that parents can withdraw their children from NAPLAN. Increasingly, state education authorities have been forced to better inform parents of their rights.
The latest figures on withdrawal rates clearly show that more and more parents are fed up with the highly pressurised atmosphere in schools around NAPLAN and the high levels of stress it places on many children. Many schools now spend hours practising for the tests in classrooms and at home in the months leading up to testing week. Apart from the unnecessary stress placed on children, it reduces the time spent in class and homework on other areas of the curriculum such as science, history, social sciences, literature, arts and music, languages, etc. The outcome is a less rounded education as well as a more stressful, less enjoyable education.
It is time to review the purpose of NAPLAN and reduce the high stakes attached to the tests.