Phoebe Kelman is a smart kid who works hard to get good marks in her year seven classes at St Philips High School in Port Stephens, three hours north of Sydney.

Key points:

  • A new national testing proposal promises to remove some of the stresses associated with NAPLAN
  • This year’s NAPLAN tests were cancelled due to COVID-19 and some parents were relieved
  • They say the standardised test puts too much pressure on their children to perform

The 13-year-old is a dedicated athlete, topping the region in shot-put and discus, and she wants to be a doctor.

For her, that dream was nearly forsaken when she received the results of her year five NAPLAN test two years ago.

“On the day when I found out my results, I was like, ‘Oh, I thought I was doing so much better.’ That ruined my confidence for a really long time,” Phoebe said.

NAPLAN is a national set of literacy and numeracy tests sat by students across the country in years three, five, seven and nine.

After the year three test, Phoebe was ranked in the nation’s top tier, but before the year five test she was forced to take time away from school due to complications from pneumonia.

“In the year five tests, Phoebe found herself ranked in the middle and she was so sad,” her mother, Christine McNamara, said.

“If they don’t do well, they feel they’re failures.”

This year’s NAPLAN tests were cancelled due to COVID-19 and for parents like Ms McNamara, that was a good thing.

“Three out of four of my kids were due to sit NAPLAN this year and I can’t tell you how relieved I was when it was cancelled due to COVID-19,” she said.

Some in the education sector want to see NAPLAN abandoned into the future too.

A review led by the New South Wales Education Department and backed by Victoria, Queensland and the ACT has proposed a new standardised test called ANSA.

It would replace NAPLAN and seek to address a few of the main concerns with the existing test.

The new test would be moved from the middle of the year to the start, meaning teachers, as well as outside tutors, would have less opportunity to coach for results — something parents have long complained about.

“Some teachers feel pressure to teach to the test at the beginning of the year,” NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell said.

Ms McNamara said that stress was passed onto her kids.

“There is way too much pressure on kids to perform in NAPLAN,” she said.

“As a mother, it’s gut-wrenching to see the pressure these kids are being put under at such a young age.

“We didn’t face pressure like that until the high school leaving certificate.”

Christine McNamara and her children say they were relieved this year’s NAPLAN tests were cancelled.(ABC News: Tom Hancock)

ANSA would also broaden the national test to include science, technology and critical thinking, and deliver results to teachers more quickly.

“At the moment kids are sitting this in May, we’re getting the results back in October, and I don’t think it’s as useful as it could be for our school communities,” Ms Mitchell said.

The big challenge for the ANSA proposal is all states and the Commonwealth have to agree before the changes can be made.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan is a strong defender of NAPLAN, which he argues will help Australia arrest its slide down global education rankings.

“If you’ve got a temperature, you don’t blame the thermometer for the temperature, what you do is blame the things that might have caused the temperature and try and deal with them,” he said.

The Federal Government has accused NSW and Victoria of dragging the chain by refusing to move NAPLAN online.

Mr Tehan will not countenance change until that happens because the Government is convinced moving NAPLAN online will solve the lag in results problem.

“Once we’ve done that, then absolutely we can look at things like bringing the test forward,” he said.

To add another complication to an already complex equation, experts want the rebel states to go further.

Pasi Sahlberg, from the University of New South Wales Gonski Institute, was a former leader in the much-vaunted Finnish education system.

“It kind of reduces intelligence into a kind of mechanistic and narrow area of knowledge and it doesn’t really say [anything] about the other intelligences that children might have,” he said.

Professor Sahlberg is scathing of NAPLAN — citing research that says 60 per cent of the variation in students’ test scores comes from socioeconomic and family factors.

“If we believe in this research … it’s kind of difficult to use the standardised test results for saying anything at all about the quality of teachers or teaching or school because most of the factors that influence and affect what the schools get out of these results is beyond their control,” he said.

Public school principals like Jenny Walker from Kellyville Public School in Sydney’s west said the test was useful, but it needed some tweaks.

“NAPLAN coming earlier in the year would be absolutely wonderful for us,” she said.

“[We’d] be able to use that data to assist all children.”

Christine McNamara says her children should not have to worry about performing against “the rest of Australia”.(ABC News: Tom Hancock)

There are some strong supporters of NAPLAN, but just like ministers and experts, parents are divided too.

Phoebe’s parents Christine and James give full marks to any moves to alter or abolish the NAPLAN tests.

“It’s terrible to do that to little kids. They shouldn’t have to worry about performing and competing with the rest of Australia,” Ms McNamara said.

“It’s such an inaccurate assessment of your child’s ability.”

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