Principals Say NAPLAN Has a Negative Impact on Schooling

A majority of primary school principals believe that the NAPLAN tests are having a negative impact on schooling. They say it has a negative impact on student well-being, curriculum and teaching practices and that considerable time is spent on preparing for the tests.

Two-thirds of principals say the tests impact negatively on student well-being, just over half say they have a negative impact on curriculum and 45 per cent say it has a negative impact on teaching practice in the classroom. Two-thirds of principals reported that time is spent on preparing for NAPLAN in their schools.

The results are broadly similar across school sectors. However, more Catholic school principals reported a negative impact on student well-being than other sectors – 74 per cent compared with an average of 66 per cent.

The negative impacts appear to be felt the most by remote area and small schools. Low SES schools had more negative impacts from NAPLAN testing, while high SES schools reported more positive impacts.

The results come from a survey of principals commissioned by the Australian Primary Principals Association. The survey was completed by 1,353 principals, comprising almost one fifth (19.3 per cent) of the combined membership.

Impact on student well-being
Principals say that the greatest impact of NAPLAN is on student well-being. Two-thirds of respondents say the impact of NAPLAN on student well-being is negative, albeit slightly so. The impacts are a result of stress and fear of failure and particularly on Year 3 students. More serious psychological impacts on wellbeing fall on one quarter of students. In addition to student stress, teacher and parent stress were also impacts reported by respondents.

Student wellbeing appears to suffer most in Catholic and remote area schools. Almost one fifth of principals at remote schools say NAPLAN testing has a very negative effect on the wellbeing of their students compared to only five per cent in metropolitan schools. Nearly 70 per cent of Catholic sector schools say it has a somewhat negative impact on student well-being, ten points higher than the average.

One quarter say students often or very often show signs of stress and around one third often or very often express fear of failure. About ten per cent of respondents say physical sickness or withdrawal of students happens often or very often.

One quarter (26 per cent) of respondents also indicated further impacts on student wellbeing, including triggering self-esteem issues and anxiety, leading to disengagement, absenteeism, apathy and behavioural problems. Demands of extra-curricular tutoring for NAPLAN also impact on student welfare. One respondent stated that:

The testing does not help those with learning difficulties or disorders; in fact it reinforces they are struggling and below their peers. The school then spends a considerable amount of time demonstrating to parents it is about the learning growth. Parents are seeking tutors in Year 3.

Over 50 per cent of principals say students have been physically sick prior to the tests at times and 7 per cent say it happens often or very often.

Half the respondents observe that the burden of NAPLAN testing is harder on Year 3 as opposed to Year 5 students, while 38 per cent see no difference in impact. Fourteen per cent say Year 5 feel the impact of NAPLAN more than Year 3.

Impact on curriculum
Just over half of principals say that NAPLAN has a negative impact on the curriculum in their schools. Fourteen per cent say it has a significant negative impact.

Forty-four per cent of respondents say their schools spend more time teaching literacy and numeracy each week to Years 3 & 5 in the run up to NAPLAN. Around 29 per cent spend an additional 1-3 hours a week. Fifteen per cent spend more than three additional hours per week on those subjects.

Sixty per cent say their school spends less time teaching non-NAPLAN subjects in the run up to the tests. Of those, 40 per cent spend slightly less time (between one-three hours less) on non-NAPLAN subjects and 17 per cent spend significantly less time (i.e. more than three hours) on them each week. One respondent said:

In the lead up to NAPLAN, it becomes ‘all about academia’ and the social/emotional/spiritual aspects of learning seem to take a back seat….NAPLAN limits our capacity to develop the non-NAPLAN aspects of holistic education.

Impact on teaching
Forty-five per cent of principals say NAPLAN has a negative impact on classroom pedagogy. One third say that Year 3 & 5 classes now spend more time rote learning, but most say only slightly more. Another one-third say that NAPLAN has a positive impact on teaching practice.

Two thirds of respondents say that their schools do allocate class time to preparing for the tests. One principal said:

Despite my insistence, staff are spending time teaching in a manner which will have an impact on NAPLAN results. They do more testing, longer periods of work time, all designed as preparation for the three days of NAPLAN.

In terms of the number of weeks’ preparation, the amount of time spent varies widely. Half of the respondents say their schools allocate between 1-3 hours of class time per week and a further 12 per cent allocate 4-5 hours per week on preparation. Very few allocate more time than that.

Nearly 60 per cent of schools spend a week or more preparing for NAPLAN. Just over 30 per cent spend two to six weeks in preparation and nine per cent say they begin preparation ten weeks or more prior to the tests.

There are differences here between school sectors: 37 per cent of Catholic schools and 35 per cent of Independent schools spend two to six weeks preparing for NAPLAN compared to 29 per cent of government schools. However, 16 per cent of government schools spend 7 weeks or more preparing compared to 10 per cent of Catholic schools and 8 per cent of Independent schools.

Some schools even devote time preparing in the year prior to NAPLAN. One respondent stated:

Much time is given over even in the previous year to NAPLAN, to enable the students to have the best opportunity to demonstrate their skills and knowledge.

Some teachers also experience significant stress in the lead up to NAPLAN. One principal said:

There is a degree of finger pointing at teachers of previous year levels if students achieve poorly or appear to lack preparation for the tests. This has a huge impact on staff teamwork and morale. The level of stress amongst the teachers in the term leading up to NAPLAN week is immense and directly impacts on many other more positive and constructive initiatives we have in place.

Parent impact
Five per cent of principals reported that they often observe parents withdrawing their children from NAPLAN. This is slightly more common in government schools and small and remote schools than in other schools. Low SES schools also report more instances of parents withdrawing their child.

The survey report concludes that while there is parental emphasis and pressure on schools in terms of NAPLAN results in highly competitive contexts in the Independent sector, very large and metropolitan schools, generally parent interest in NAPLAN results is fairly muted and focused on their own child’s results.

Parents are most interested in their own child’s NAPLAN performance. Half of parents have high or very high levels of interest in their child’s NAPLAN results, while 32 per cent have a medium level of interest. The percentages are similar for government and Catholic school parents while 69 per cent of Independent school parents show high or very high levels of interest. There are lower levels of parent interest in low SES schools.

About one quarter (24 per cent) of parents have a high/very high level of interest in their school’s NAPLAN results, with 35 per cent showing a medium level of interest. Again, parents of children attending Independent schools expressed higher levels of interest than the average, with almost half (47 per cent) showing high/very high levels of interest in the school’s NAPLAN results compared to 26 per cent in Catholic schools and 21 per cent in government schools. Parents in low SES schools have less interest in their school’s results.

Principals were also asked whether, since NAPLAN testing began, parents had removed or enrolled children from their school based on the child’s or the school’s NAPLAN results.

About 10 per cent of principals reported that they had experienced instances of parents withdrawing their child from the school because of their child’s or the school’s results. Nearly 20 per cent of principals had experience of parents citing their child’s NAPLAN results in enrolling at the school. However, nearly 50 per cent of Independent school principals had experienced this behaviour.

A school’s NAPLAN results appear to be a relevant factor in some parents’ decisions about selecting a primary school for their child. About one-third of principals have experienced parents wanting to enrol their child on the basis of the school’s NAPLAN results. This is more common for Independent schools where 50 per cent of principals say this occurs compared to 36 per cent of Catholic school principals and 30 per cent of government school principals.

Trevor Cobbold

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