Mirella and Charlene are teachers and education consultants who met in 2012, growing close over a shared love of Ellen Degeneres and The West Wing. Their professional concern for wanting to “do more” for mathematics education led them to create Education Equals – a pioneering educational space.

When it comes to NAPLAN we know that parents are usually in one of three groups: unconvinced that NAPLAN is worthwhile, indifferent to NAPLAN or they can see that it has some benefits. But what do teachers really think about NAPLAN?

We, at Education Equals, are both high school Mathematics teachers, and we’ve seen many students sit NAPLAN, so we thought we’d answer a few of the most common questions we’ve been asked.

Do students find NAPLAN really stressful?

In our experience the answer is no. By the time students are in secondary school, they are so used to the rigours of testing for all their subjects that by the time May comes around, they’re taking it all in their stride. If anything, they’re glad to have a test involving multiple choice for a change, and they’re glad to have tests they don’t have to study for.

There are some students who do experience test anxiety, and this is for any test, not just NAPLAN.  The key to overcoming this is familiarisation with testing environments and how to prepare. At a high school level they get a lot of practice and are even used to balancing preparation for a few assessments on the same day or within the same week.

What, if anything, do teachers use NAPLAN for?

We agree that as it currently stands, it is difficult for teachers to use NAPLAN in a meaningful way due to the significant lag time in receiving the results. Again, as high school teachers, within our departments we work as a team, so together we identify which students will need extra support or extra extension the following year. We also use NAPLAN to identify what areas of maths might need greater focus for the entire cohort.

The main benefit of NAPLAN in our experience is during the intake of new students, especially those starting secondary school in Year 7. These students come from many different primary schools and we need to place them in ability appropriate classes to enable their progress and success. We don’t know what level of mathematical understanding they’ve achieved or what an A grade signified at their primary school. NAPLAN is the only common assessment and gives a good overview of how well they’ve mastered certain skills and concepts. It is the best tool we have to make good decisions about initial class placements.

In Western Australia, achieving a certain level in Year 9 NAPLAN (from this year onwards) will mean students have already fulfilled one requirement for secondary school graduation. Students who don’t achieve that level will need to continue to sit literacy and numeracy tests until they do meet the standard. For those students who fall below the standard, we will use their NAPLAN results to see where and how we can support them and help them leave school with better literacy and numeracy foundations.

How do you feel about NAPLAN preparation?

We both agree that there is a happy medium to be struck between focusing too much on NAPLAN practice and ignoring the occurrence of the tests altogether. In our experience there is simply not enough time to spend during class on sitting endless past papers – we have too much curriculum to teach and too many mathematical ideas to develop and explore!

Having said that, it’s important to find the time to talk to students about NAPLAN and where it fits into their overall learning journey. It’s healthy for them to understand the importance of literacy and numeracy in their lives, and as for all tests and tasks, we need to make it clear to them that we want and expect them to apply their best efforts. Doing the best you can do is all we ever want from our students, and we’d like to think that this is a consistent message they receive from all their teachers and their parents.

For us then, NAPLAN preparation usually involves spending maybe one or two lessons discussing the Numeracy paper with our class and having them sit a practice paper, maybe giving them a second one to try at home. We then take the time to discuss the questions in the paper, especially those involving problem solving skills, where we find it a useful learning opportunity for students to hear from each other the various ways they could approach the problem.

What do you think is the future of NAPLAN?

As we know, NAPLAN will be online from 2017 on an opt-in basis of two to three years, and will also be much more closely aligned with the Australian Curriculum. These are both great things to look forward to, and will mean a more useful standardised test.

Being online will be useful for a few reasons. Firstly it will mean automatic, computer-based marking, which should in turn mean a much faster turnaround in receiving results. This will make NAPLAN more immediately useful to a child’s teacher.

Secondly, the planned strategy for online testing will also mean that students don’t all sit the exact same test. Instead, the test will be responsive. What this means is that students will all start with the same block of say 8 questions, and then depending on how they go, they will sit the next block according to their ability level. This will mean weaker students will have the ability to demonstrate the level they have achieved, rather than feeling hopeless throughout the entire paper, and higher ability students will have more challenging problems to attempt, also giving them an opportunity to demonstrate their skill. And of course there will be all the levels in-between. This will be great for students, parents and teachers alike.

And finally, having the questions aligned with the Australian Curriculum, rather than the initially agreed upon Statements of Learning, will mean both teachers and students will find it relevant to their everyday teaching and learning.

Leaving politics and emotions aside, the fact is that NAPLAN exists and is here to stay. It is in no way perfect, and in fact continues to evolve. The most important thing is to find ways to use NAPLAN for enriching learning and improving what we do each day. Then again, with the many obstacles in a teacher’s way, this is what we always aim to do.