What's the answer?

Families choosing schools in Australia will be wondering how to pick a good school. You will also be asking what tests and exams students sit down under.

NAPLAN is the most significant test parents need to understand.

What is NAPLAN?

Since 2008, all students in Australian schools in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are assessed on the same days using national tests in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation) and Numeracy. These assessments are called the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests.

The tests are typically sat during May of the academic years mentioned above. Later in the year children receive a report with their test results and their level of achievement (they are placed in a band for literacy and numeracy). Read more and access sample tests here.

The aim of NAPLAN is to review the literacy and numeracy performance of all Australian students at a given moment in time. The tests were not designed to reflect on an individual or school’s progress between one set of tests and another, but are more a method of understanding how education programs and curriculums are working and whether curriculum or education policy improvements need to be made, on country-wide scale.

NAPLAN and the My School website

However, since the launch of the Australian Government’s My School website (January 2010), NAPLAN results are increasingly being used by parents as a way of ranking individual schools. Last year we wrote about the controversial launch of My School 2, an upgrade to the website to include school financial data. As well as school funding details and past NAPLAN results, My School provides school size and demographic information.

Should parents use NAPLAN results to rate schools?

When we researched primary schools in Australia we looked at the data available on the My School website and at other published reports of past NAPLAN results. It’s hard not to be interested in this information. However, as the My School launch coincided with our arrival down under we were very aware of media scepticism regarding the use of NAPLAN results to rank schools.

NAPLAN tests were not supposed to be something you can prepare for but cynics say the more attention NAPLAN gets from parents, as a way of judging a good school or teacher, the more likely educators are to “teach to the test” in order to improve results. In fact, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald last year, explains how this mirrors what has happened in the USA with similar testing.

Another point we have discussed with a number of parents looking for High Schools in Australia is that families often get excited about Year 7 NAPLAN results in highly regarded schools but good results in Year 7 are often more to do with a school’s enrolment process than anything else. Popular schools are able to select the best students.

Mum also feels Year 7 tests, sat the May after a student graduates from Primary School, should reflect on the primary education a student has had rather than the High School system they join.

A sad suggestion mentioned in stories such as this one in the Brisbane Times is that students with learning difficulties are often asked by schools to skip NAPLN tests; schools want to ensure these scores don’t lower the overall results of the school.

A can of worms

When you start to explore the use of NAPLAN results to rank Australian schools you are opening a can of worms.

When you move to a new country or move interstate in Australia you might not know anyone to ask about the reputation of local schools. In the absence of first-hand recommendations, parents like to have something concrete to use to find a ‘good’ school, but it seems to us that NAPLAN isn’t the answer.

When we’re asked about NAPLAN and how to choose schools in Australia we recommend looking at the My School website but suggest taking the NAPLAN results with a pinch of salt.

We didn’t let poor NAPLAN results stop us from visiting schools in our area. We decided we ought to see the facilities, get a feel for the schools and meet Principals, in order to make our own minds up.

How else can you select schools?

Apart from NAPLAN the only other ‘tests’ whose results are publicly available are the HSC (High School Certificate) sat in Year 12. Not much help when you’re selecting a Primary School, but looking at past HSC results may be of use when researching High Schools; we expect you’ll need a few tubs of salt there too!

If you have time before enrolling your children in school we would recommend getting to know the area around the school and asking as many people as possible about the school’s reputation; be prepared for mixed responses. We were fortunate to have a year in Sydney before our son started school, and we asked everyone we met about schools.

The other things you can look at will depend on what you and your children require from a school, and we feel this is a personal thing. For Mum, as we’ve written before, the most influential factor in choosing a school for our family was gut feel. We visited a few schools and one just felt right; and the past NAPLAN results weren’t the best in the area (but they weren’t the worst either!).

Whether you’re currently planning your move or have already been through this stage of your relocation to Australia we’d love to hear from you. Did you look at past NAPLAN results when selecting schools? What else did you look for when selecting a school? We’d love to hear your views and stories. Thank you.

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