This year’s cancelled NAPLAN tests should be immediately reinstated. If ever there was a year when we need to know about student learning, it is this year. We need to understand the effect of shutdowns, re-openings and further shutdowns. We also need to have evidence to understand how remote learning is affecting, and has affected, student learning. This is a one-in-one-hundred-year opportunity to understand the effects of disruption, the shift online and then back to the classroom. It would assist policymakers to make decisions based on data.
Of course, the anti-evidence movement, preferring to whip up testing-hysteria, or crow on the basis of anecdote, will be dismayed. Preferring to outsource their angst over low-stakes testing onto kids, these people will gasp in shock. How dare we measure the impacts of the educational disruption? How dare we seek to understand which kids are most affected and who is most disaffected? How dare we try and quantify the learning loss? Highly predictable, the anti-evidencers prefer student learning to go unmeasured.
Right then but wrong now
The decision to cancel NAPLAN for this year was made in March. At that time, it may have looked right when we were faced with deep uncertainty. However, in August it is time to reverse the decision. The worst of winter is over. Students are back in school, elbow to elbow in classrooms. With physical closeness not an issue, despite the health dangers, how bad can basic literacy and numeracy testing be? That cannot be an issue either.
In October, commencing with the start of Term 4 the tests should be run nationally.
The benefit brought by the data would far outweigh any perceived issues.
Educators will feel supported if they know that decision-makers are seeking to understand the effects of COVID. They will feel supported by a system flexible enough to bend now, to avoid breaking later. They will also feel supported if the messaging is about the best interests of the students and their teachers.
Teachers want to know what learning losses have been accrued. They want to know whether remote learning has been effective. Families are keen to know that the education system is a ‘learning system.’ They are already clamouring for data. Both educators and parents want to know what works and what does not.
We can then start 2021 with evidence to provide appropriate support to students needing intervention.
We need to know how well reading, writing and language conventions are taught online. We need to know how far behind all students have slipped, including the least literate. We need to see whether limitations exist in teaching numeracy online. Armed with this evidence we can then determine how best to shape blended learning.
We can also determine which students need much more targeted intervention and exactly how much.
Decision-makers can determine how much more access to technology is required where, and can then determine how. They can also properly measure who needs more one-to-one time.
There is no other assessment instrument capable of giving rich data like NAPLAN. As a national assessment it would provide essential insight into what has happened during the past six months. It would also be a basis for making reasoned and intelligent adjustments to school funding in 2021 and beyond.
Of course, the real question or examination is whether having made a decision, the Education Ministers are prepared to reverse it in the national educational interest.