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NAPLAN’s back, as study finds students’ scores don’t improve much

Australia’s controversial literacy and numeracy test NAPLAN is back this term, with some changes after a pause during the COVID-19 crisis of 2020.

Certificates of achievement will be awarded to year 9 students who significantly improve on their year 7 results, or whose numeracy and literacy NAPLAN scores put them in the top band in the country, in a bid to better engage students from that year level.

Dr Gary Marks of the University of Melbourne says schools play only a small role in students’ achievement.

Dr Gary Marks of the University of Melbourne says schools play only a small role in students’ achievement. Credit:Jason South

In addition, the writing test will be spread out over two days for most year levels and the NAPLAN online conventions of language test will be decoupled from the reading test.

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino has proposed further changes, including changing the years students sit the NAPLAN test from years 3, 5, 7 and 9, to years 4, 6, 8 and 10.


NAPLAN has been criticised for creating anxiety among students and driving unhealthy competition between schools, but fans of the 13-year-old test say it provides rich information on student progress.

A recent analysis of the NAPLAN results of 1.5 million students from 2013 to 2018 found most students who do well in the test were already doing well at a younger age.

“Across the six calendar years, less than 40 per cent of secondary schools have significant effects on achievement in numeracy and writing and only about a quarter have significant effects for the other domains,” the report said.

The study, by the University of Melbourne’s Dr Gary Marks, found students’ prior achievement was the main determinant of how they would do in NAPLAN in future years. The next most relevant factor was their socio-economic status, he said, adding that schools pay only a minor role in students’ progress.

“How well they did two years before is the main determinant of how they’ll do in NAPLAN,” he said. “The correlation between year 5 [NAPLAN results] and year 3 is high, particularly in numeracy and spelling.”

Dr Marks also found that:

  • students with language backgrounds other than English reported bigger increases in NAPLAN scores than English language background students, especially in numeracy;
  • Indigenous students reported weaker increases in NAPLAN scores than non-Indigenous students, particularly in secondary school;
  • students with more highly educated parents showed “slightly stronger” achievement growth; and
  • boys improved more in numeracy, while girls improved more in writing and grammar.

Dr Marks called for targeting tutoring of students who fall behind in primary school. Dr Sue Thomson, deputy CEO (research) at the Australian Centre for Educational Research, agreed.

“If we could work to eliminate differences in reading ability before grade 2 then we would have far fewer problems in later years, such as teachers in year 10 trying to deal with students who are reading at a grade 3 level,” she said.

Dr Sue Thomson - Deputy CEO (Research) at the Australian Council for Education Research

Dr Sue Thomson – Deputy CEO (Research) at the Australian Council for Education ResearchCredit:Simon Schluter

Dr Thomson said while Dr Marks’ findings largely matched those of major international tests, she disagreed that students’ individual characteristics were more important than socio-economic status.

“Students’ socio-economic background has a huge bearing on their initial school experiences – from the amount of time that children have in pre-school, to the type of pre-school they attend, to the number of books they have read to them before they even start school,” she said.

Jordana Hunter, program director, education at the Grattan Institute, said school level factors such as teaching methods and school leadership “can have a bigger impact on student progress than the levels of advantage and disadvantage within a school.”

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