The NAPLAN online controversy is about a failure of meaning, and not about a failure of technology

Recent issues with NAPLAN online are more profound in nature than the usual botching of government technology.  The controversy is not akin to the usual technical failures like those of the My Health Record, the Australian Census, and money laundering through deposit machines.  Instead, the issues with NAPLAN online allude to a broader malaise in Australian education around meaning-making.

Doubts over the NAPLAN online assessment challenges broader assumptions around literacy and numeracy in Australian education. That NAPLAN online results are not comparable to paper-based results shatters the illusion that conceptions of numeracy and literacy are fixed. It forces policy-makers to confront that linguistic and numeric skills are culturally and technology dependent.

The illusion that literacy and numeracy are fixed concepts allows educators and commentators to talk about education through abstract numbers, bands and levels. It allows commentators to avoid talking about educational content and curriculum. NAPLAN tests do not assess curriculum in any state or territory. Instead, NAPLAN assesses content not tied to any specific cultural context or curriculum, to present an illusion that it assesses timeless skills and knowledge. This illusion is shattered by the transition to NAPLAN online.

The abstract nature of NAPLAN makes it useful for policy-making purposes and broader commentary about educational issues. NAPLAN allows for conversations about education that go beyond and across curriculum and cultural boundaries. It allows for commentary on the performance gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and on differences between certain states and territories. More importantly, NAPLAN underpins funding arguments such as those in Gonski 2.0. While NAPLAN does not assess how particular students relate to the curriculum they are taught it does provide for these broader conversations. The importance of NAPLAN in these broader policy and funding discussions generates a strong policy imperative for its survival.

NAPLAN makes the work of policy-makers, researchers, and commentators easier. NAPLAN allows policy-makers to mount arguments while ignoring changes in the world experienced by teachers and students. Developments in social media, computational technology, and science more generally, are not addressed by NAPLAN. The imperative to report longitudinally through trends makes responding to technological developments difficult for NAPLAN. This leads to a disconnect between the world of policy and the world of the classroom. It is a disconnect that increases with each cycle of NAPLAN.

The challenge presented to policy-makers by the latest NAPLAN online results are significant. The results expose the fragility of NAPLAN data at a student level. On the one hand, that the online tests adapt to student responses makes estimates of student ability more precise. On the other hand, students are presented with questions that target their ability which can increase their engagement to enhance performance. That some things are easier or harder to see on a screen than on paper can also affect performance. Further challenges to trend reporting will be presented as the online test begins to evolve to incorporate videos, simulations, and games. These effects of a transition from paper-based to computer-based tests are well known and the subject of ongoing research. These effects also point to the broader malaise in Australian educational discourse.

The inability of NAPLAN to reflect broader developments in society is being exposed by the transition to NAPLAN online. The latest NAPLAN controversy is not the result of a glitch or technical incompetence. Instead, the controversy exposes a broader conceptual problem in Australian education. Australian policy-makers and commentators have been spoiled by Australia coming of high-base of educational performance, and by an abundance of educational data that allows for broad and sweeping policy commentary. However, this approach is leading to a continued decline in Australian educational achievement. NAPLAN online exposes the need to reconnect educational assessment with the world that students experience.

The Gonski 2.0 report calls for a national effort to develop an on-demand formative assessment system. However, there is a strong sense that the Australian education sector is hopelessly under-prepared and under-skilled to create such a system. Such a system would require re-engagement with curriculum, educational content and student ability levels. The Australian obsession with numerical focused assessment systems and critique based on these systems has atrophied the connection with educational content. This is what the current NAPLAN online controversy exposes.

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