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Tuesday, 8 September 2015

NAPLAN scores - The good, the bad and the helpful

What is the NAPLAN?
NAPLAN, (National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy) is a standardised test given to Australian students annually in years 3,5,7,9. The purpose of the NAPLAN is to ascertain how Australian kids are progressing in basic skills compared to children of the same age at their school and across the nation.

Some parents and teachers have concerns about the NAPLAN and keep their child home from school that day because they fear their child will be humiliated or excessively stressed by the test.

While I respect parents' fears and opinions, I am a great believer in the positive aspects of the NAPLAN. And my opinion is formed from my background as a Specialist Literacy Teacher, Secondary School English Teacher, Special Education Teacher of 25 years, published children's author and parent. I can assure you, it is not something to be feared.

The problem with 'protecting your child' from the NAPLAN
Statistics are only as good as the sample group. Parents who fear humiliation for their child and keep their child at home on the day of the test are in actuality skewing the test results. As a nation we need to know how ALL our children are doing. Schools try not to make it a big deal by practicing mock tests leading up to the day, thus giving kids the confidence to have a go. Its important that our kids learn to be brave when it comes to tests, to try their best, to be resilient. We do them no favours by shielding them. Resilience is a terribly important life skill. It enables us to put in our best effort even when we're afraid or lack confidence. It proves to ourselves that we can do things, even when we're afraid or upset. Who dares wins! Besides, realistically, kids know already where they rank in their class. They know who is better than they are at reading, spelling, Maths. They also know who is further behind than they are. This is normal within in any group. We all have our gifts and our struggles.

If your child has a disability that restricts access to the tests they may be entitled to special provisions to enable them to complete the test with assistance. Similarly, if your child has language difficulties due to English being their second language, ask the school for assistance. You can find more information here special provisions for NAPLAN

Ability vs Disabilty
Personally, I struggled with Maths right up until I finished university. It's just not my thing. It doesn't mean my life is adversely affected. I'd like to mention here that a long term student of mine stayed at a reading age of 7 years for fours years, (she was in high school by then), until one day I noticed on a recent school report that she scored an A for Art. This sparked a whole new program, where she analysed Art from different periods, summarised and gave an opinion about each artist. It took a lot of effort on her part, encouragement at home from her parents and two terms of instruction, but she went from a D student, to a B student. It's about finding that little bit of daylight and heading towards it, even if the child in question has quite severe learning problems. But we won't know what those little bits of daylight are if the child is not assessed along with their peers.

The positives
The NAPLAN is not perfect, lets be clear about that, but as a general standardised tool I think it's terrific as an indicator for parents, schools and policy makers. It gives us all an idea of where our kids are at, compared to their peers. Yes, it may seem like a punishment for some kids, but the point is, once children with difficulties have been identified, the assistance they need can be given. In our family's case, our child scored way above average in three areas, which was a delight, a relief and a cause for celebration. As teachers ourselves my husband and I have resisted the urge to supplement her public school education. We wanted to get an accurate snapshot of how she was doing on her own merits. The results have given us valuable information. We know how we can help her in the areas she is not as proficient, thus boosting her confidence as well as her skills.
How is it helpful?
As a Specialist Teacher in the private sector the majority of students I work with come to our centre because of parental concerns about their progress. I believe parents, as the first educators, have instincts that should not be ignored. In assessing children's skills and knowledge I always ask to see a copy of their recent NAPLAN. Helpfully, the report indicates skills areas the child did not attempt or had difficulty with. This is invaluable to programming for that specific child and helping them on their way. I can then use a screening test to discover more detail about the skills and knowledge needed for that child.

You can find more information on the positive aspects in this helpful article by The Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching website Why NAPLAN is not a dirty word

Because the NAPLAN comes around every two years, from years 3-9 it is also an important indicator of progress. It makes the school accountable. If the child is still struggling with spelling two years later, then the approach is failing that child and a new strategy must be formed.

Parents have rights, in terms of their child's education. I'm not advocating you rush up to the school making demands, but as a parent, you can use the results of the NAPLAN to help your child get the assistance they need to develop skills and knowledge.

Future NAPLAN testing
The Australian Government is committed to making the NAPLAN tests more user friendly, by making them electronic. While I suspect this is also a way to streamline marking the tests, it may be less stressful for some students. You can read more about it here: Electronic NAPLAN

Helping your own child
I have been banging on about this for 25 years, but I'll bang again. The single most important thing you can do for your child's academic progress is to encourage a love of reading. Being literate is the cornerstone of education: acquiring, generalising, synthesising and expressing knowledge. Without the ability to read your child will suffer in all academic areas, including Maths, as much of Maths in Primary school these days is about interpreting the question.

So, how do you do this?
  1. Turn off the TV/DVD/Computer/X-box - Kids are so over-stimulated by fast moving visuals and noise that they struggle to concentrate in the classroom. The brain is over stimulated in specific areas which actually stops them absorbing and understanding new information given verbally and in static visual contexts such as books or the board. The answer is not to make everything computerised!!!!! Just look at the number of adults who go around with their head down, staring at their smart phone, cut off from their surroundings. Kids need to connect with what is going on around them.
  2. Work on self- management - Give your child the opportunities to develop self-control and self-awareness (Oops, I'm not concentrating!), positive self-talk (I can have a go and do my best). The ability to focus in an environment where there may be distractions such as other kids is invaluable. 
  3. Work on communication skills - The ability to understand instructions through using body language cues, facial cues as well as verbal language cues such as tone of voice is of inestimable value to your child's life, both now and in the future. So many of our social problems are rooted in people's inability to communicate effectively.
  4. Foster a love of BOOKS - For every child, no matter how reluctant, there is a single book that will spark their interest. Keep trying until you find that book!!!! It might be about magic tricks, horses, mystery stories, archaeology, science, adventure stories, robots, fairies, fairy tales, history, machines, marine life, geography, cultures and religions... the list is endless! Make visiting the local library and bookshops a regular outing. You will be surprised at your child's reaction once they really see  what is there, and the amazing world they are missing out on because they expect it all to be animated for them.
  5. Read to your child every night.
  6. Have your child read to you every day.
  7. Using imagination - sounds trite, I know, but it is SO important. A child's brain is particularly plastic, that means, it is constantly changing and growing. You can literally affect how large a brain your child develops by how you encourage them to use it. Get the glue and cardboard out and make a robot. Read to each other and discuss your favourite bits of the book then draw a picture of it. Build castles/cubby houses/secret hideouts using blankets and chairs. Pretend to be dinosaurs.
  8. Activities - Being active!  Plant a little vegie patch together. Get on your bikes and go for a ride together round the neighbourhood or at the park. Cook together, using a kids cookbook (this is great for practical Maths skills). Visit local places such as historic houses and museums and talk about what you learned. There's so much to DO. Don't just read about it or watch it on a screen, get out there and be in it, experience it.

 Well, this post is a bit longer than I planned! Must get back to writing my young adult novel now, or it will never be finished!

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