There is a New Subject Called NAPLAN and a New Ailment Called “NAPLAN Belly” in Schools

The pressure on schools, teachers, students and even parents over NAPLAN mushroomed this year. So much more time was spent in class practising the tests beforehand that one television presenter quipped that NAPLAN is a new subject for the first part of the school year. Horror stories abound about student stress during test week. A new ailment called “NAPLAN belly” was rampant amongst young children.

Cramming for NAPLAN now dominates the curriculum in the first part of the school year. A former Victorian education official, John Nelson, said the vast majority of schools spent the first 15 weeks of this year preparing for NAPLAN. A Sunrise television presenter said that the “mummy network” was awash with stories of schools practising for the tests. “All schools do it for the first three months of that year, that’s all they do”, she said.

A talkback caller on Radio 3AW in Melbourne said:

My wife’s a teacher and the last four weeks they’ve been coaching NAPLAN, NAPLAN, NAPLAN, for the whole last four weeks. In addition, they’ve been instructed to put teaching aids up around the room that relate to NAPLAN. And they’ve been instructing the kids to look around the room when they’re in strife.

Brisbane ABC radio presenter, Madonna King, reported that schools in Queensland had practised the tests over and over again. A private school principal interviewed on the program said that his school had practised intensively for the tests.

One university lecturer supervising trainee teachers told SOS:

Our BEd primary students are in schools at the moment and are experiencing NAPLAN full on. Today I spent the day with 16 of them at a local school. Most of the students reported that they’d been taking lessons about NAPLAN for the past two weeks, and were shocked at the amount of classroom time spent on preparing for the test.

Some schools even started practising last year. One teacher said:

At our school last year, as soon as the school found out what the writing genre would be they started doing it in Year 2. As the Year 3 teacher said the other day, ‘The kids are over it (testing) and I am over it.’

An Adelaide parent said:

My daughter is in Grade 4 at a school in Tassie and she told me on the phone yesterday that, as practice for next year’s test, the teacher had them doing this year’s Grade 3 NAPLAN test and then the Year 5 if they happened to finish that quickly. Now, she says she finds it fun so for her it’s not really an issue. But one might ask why on earth they are doing this in Year 4? I don’t suppose this is the only case of such lunacy.

The head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, Professor Barry McGaw, said that schools cannot prepare for NAPLAN. He was lambasted by the former Victorian education official who said that McGaw was “living in Noddy land” if he thought that schools did not spend considerable time practising for the tests.

The principal of St. Catherine’s School Waverly in Sydney, Dr. Julie Townsend, concurred:

Many parents and some schools are not convinced by the statements of the testing body, the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Authority, that these are not pass or fail tests and that coaching for them is not recommended. That advice is being ignored by many across the nation.

The executive director of the Australian Parents Council, Ian Dalton, told ABC PM:

I suppose the concerning thing for us is that we’ve been getting reports about various areas where schools and teachers may have been placing more emphasis on the tests than we think is healthy.

Parents were pressured by schools to get their children to practice for NAPLAN. Many schools sent practice tests home for parents to prepare their children, including during school holidays. Others encouraged parents to use NAPLAN-style test packs sold in shops and on-line.

“Schools are worried about the results, so they’re increasingly recommending that their students get extra tutoring,” said the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Tutoring Association, Mohan Dhall. “The My School website has made schools much more competitive.”

Many schools now treat NAPLAN tests as the equivalent of external Year 12 exams. One Year 5 student in a Canberra private school told SOS at the beginning of test week that “it’s a big week this week because NAPLAN starts tomorrow…..the results will count for half my grade.”

Some private schools took to separating the more easily distracted or disruptive students from other students taking the tests. These students were taken to another classroom and supervised by another teacher as a way of minimising the impact of disruptive students on the school’s overall results.

Regional education offices put pressure on principals to improve their scores with regional meetings being devoted to NAPLAN. In turn, principals put the pressure on teachers. One teacher said:

If I am told one more time, ‘If our school’s results look bad on the My School website, the parents will question it,’ I am going to scream!

All this pressure fed down to the bottom of the chain – the students. There are an abundance of horror stories from test week about the stress placed on students, particularly young children. Some students as young as seven or eight went through hell. One teacher said:

I can tell you about a little girl in my room who has English as her second language. Her parents have extremely high expectations, not only to do well in her NAPLAN, but to excel. She has been sitting NAPLAN style tests EVERY NIGHT for a month, to practice for the big day.
She has been extremely anxious and was doing the countdown every day until the ‘big day’. This caused many other children in my grade to become nervous about the testing. This poor girl was not only worrying herself sick, but also feeding the anxiety of the other children in the grade.
I took her outside to speak to her, and she broke down. “If I don’t do well in the NAPLAN, my parents will be very angry with me.” I asked if I could help, by ringing her parents to explain the situation. This made her even more anxious as she said that I would only make it worse for her.

It was reported to SOS that a Year 5 student at one western Sydney school with Asperger’s syndrome was self-harming during a test by stabbing the veins in his wrists with the sharpened pencil because he thought he would fail. A Year 3 student was so worked up about failing she went into a kind of catatonic state and just sat in the desk chewing and swallowing tiny bits the rubber on the end of the pencil and crying for the full time of the test. This continued for each of the three days of the test.

The Sunday Times in Perth reported that children became so worked up over tests that some “dropped their bundle” and refused to finish. Other students had trouble sleeping the night before and some walked away feeling deflated and “useless”, according to WA Primary Principals Association president Steve Breen.

Penny Gilmour of the ACT branch of the Australian Education Union said that the union was aware of many instances of students becoming distressed when faced with the NAPLAN tests, with some having “melt-downs” [Media Alert, 12 May 2011]. The union reported that increasing numbers of parents had requested exemptions from the tests for their children because of the stress they caused.

SOS also received many stories of young children experiencing stomach pains at school only for it to disappear when they arrived home. This was so widespread that one mother diagnosed it as “NAPLAN belly”.

Dr. Julie Townsend of St. Catherine’s School summed it all up:

There is increasing evidence that children are feeling the pressure to deliver the goods at NAPLAN tests.
Children as young as seven and eight will be doing these tests. It is inappropriate and potentially damaging for them to feel the burden of pressure to achieve results in a high-achieving band.

NAPLAN and My School are sucking enjoyment out of learning and teaching. Endless practising of tests makes school boring and turns children off learning. High stress placed on young children is psychologically damaging. Teachers are turned off teaching. One private school teacher told SOS that “schools are now very depressing places to work in thanks to Julia Gillard”.

Another real cost of NAPLAN and My School is the diversion of time from other subjects while practising tests. Many teachers were told to focus on NAPLAN at the expense of other learning areas. A teacher told the Sunrise television program:

I’ve been told by principals to ignore and change curriculum planning and only focus on the NAPLAN criteria otherwise we get humiliated at staff meetings.

The ACT branch of the Australian Education Union reported that many Canberra schools spent disproportionate amounts of classroom time on NAPLAN to the detriment of other curriculum areas.

An extra hour a day for up to 15 weeks practising and preparing for NAPLAN is time taken away from other subjects 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.

There can be no doubt now that NAPLAN and My School are doing immense harm in our schools.

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