CQUniversity Australia

Can NAPLAN get to grips with the geography of disadvantage? 

Media Contact: Hilary Winchester via 0419 807 057 or Chris Duncan 0488 997 565

Does the use of NAPLAN to judge the performance of students in very remote regions, and to set targets for them, ignore the element of entrenched disadvantage?

That's one of the questions arising from a recent conference paper presentation authored by CQUniversity's Professor Hilary Winchester and her colleague Dr Christopher Duncan (from the CRC for Remote Economic Participation).

Their paper provides an overview of the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results of schools located across the 'very remote' region of mainland Australia. It provides a previously unavailable assessment of the 'accountability and transparency' of national testing among schools across a region with a significant over-representation of socio-educationally disadvantaged schools.

Professor Winchester says the overview reinforced the need to take account of the effect of differences in population characteristics when interpreting NAPLAN results "as the measurement tool does not seem to get to grips with the differences in geography".

"At any given point, the mean NAPLAN scores will reflect more than the relative performance of education systems and particularly the spatial aspects of demographic and socio-economic aspects of populations," the authors said.

Professor Winchester points out that Australia is still in the process of bedding down the new NAPLAN assessment regime and that the authors are keen to discuss the appropriateness of standardised testing in the ‘very remote' context, as well as the appropriateness of the data's publication and use in developing policies and programs.

"The paper highlights the recent introduction of testing and its premature use ... at a stage when no causal relationship has been established, for example, between school attendance rates and outcomes achieved in NAPLAN assessments in schools located in Indigenous communities," Professor Winchester says.

She says there's plenty of data pointing to a 'multitude of interrelated disadvantages' experienced by people in very remote areas, affecting both Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents.

Very remote communities differ substantially in their cultural underpinnings, worldviews, historical experiences, population size, environmental conditions, infrastructure, available services and economic opportunities.

The discrete communities can also not be assumed to be homogenous or harmonious, as they may have different cultural and social groups and a complex mix of relationships and power dynamics.

Professor Winchester and her colleague are also examining whether NAPLAN questions are always appropriate for their audience. For example, should students in very remote regions be given numeracy examples based on the patronage of a multiplex cinema?