A Small Step for Government But a Giant Step for Remote Indigenous Children: NAPLAN and Indigenous Learners

The current review of NAPLAN is the second Parliamentary Inquiry into the use of NAPLAN data in Australia.  If it goes the way of the first inquiry then little change can be expected.

When the previous Inquiry was initiated, I was working for the Australian College of Educators.  We put a huge amount of effort into our submission.  It went through a member consultation process, was submitted and then sank like a stone.  Indeed even the website that hosted all the submissions appears to have disappeared. Nothing much came of it as can be expected when an issue has become politicised.

I am much less optimistic about what can be achieved this time round. My ideal outcome is unrealistic. It will not lead to a change in emphasis from testing and measuring to supporting and building capability –  no matter how much the evidence supports such a change.

However we can and should advocate to address the most egregious problems and unintended consequences associated with NAPLAN.  This is our chance to highlight them.

For this reason I was very excited to see that Submission No. 71 to the Inquiry comes from Leonard Freeman, the Principal of Yirrkala School in the remote northeast of the Northern Territory.

Yirrkala College is a K-12 very remote school quite near the mining township of Nhulumbuy on the Gove Peninsula.  It serves a discreet, remote Indigenous Community on Aboriginal land and 100% of the students that attend are Indigenous.  According to MySchool 97% of the students at the school have a ‘Language Background Other Than English (known as LBOTE).

Now, it is easy to underestimate the significance of this language background issue in Indigenous contexts.  Children who grow up in a remote Indigenous community where their mother tongue is still alive and thriving are, in every sense of the word, still residing in a non-English speaking background country.  They arrive at school with almost no experience of hearing English spoken.  They don’t hear it at home, around town, on their radio station, local stores, health centre, or at social/cultural events.

LBOTE is a broad category and very unhelpful for understanding language challenges and issues.  Children and their families can be quite fluent in English, but if they speak a language other than English in their home they are still classified as LBOTE.  Most LBOTE children who have very little or no English are recent arrivals from a non-English background country.  They might reside in suburbs where English is not the dominant home language and for the first school year attend an Intensive English language unit but English is still heard around them – in playgrounds, health centres, playgroups, libraries, radio, TV and in the school playground and classrooms.  They are, at some level,immersed in a culture where English is heard.

Children at Yirrkala can grow up hearing almost no English spoken.  When they get to school, their classes are in language for the first few years (in spite of the NT Governments poor decision to change this Yirrkala maintained this policy) – in fact right up to year 3 where teaching in English is gradually introduced.

So what does Leonard Freeman have to say about NAPLAN?

He argues that while there is a perception that NAPLAN is a fair test it is anything but.

[NAPLAN] is a testing scheme that seems as fair as it could possibly be – all students sit the same tests and the marking is conducted by an independent central body. However, this perception of fairness is a thin veil that covers a system that disadvantages students who speak English as a Second Language.

There are a number of issues wrapped up in this notion of unfairness.

Firstly, the NAPLAN exemption criteria do not give adequate consideration to the English language development of Indigenous children living in non-English speaking discreet Indigenous communities.

Most Australian educators assume that students who speak little or no English can be identified by the category “newly arrived from a non-English background country”.  In fact, when I worked in education in the NT I found that I had to constantly remind education administrators at national meetings that their proxy use of newly arrived non-English speaking migrants leaves out Indigenous children with identical or even greater challenges.

Nationally two per cent of Australian children are exempt from sitting the NAPLAN test. Students can be exempted from one or more NAPLAN tests if they have significant or complex disability, or if they are from a non-English-speaking background and arrived in Australia less than one year before the tests. 

So in fact almost all other children, who have as little English language competence as Year 3 and even year 5 remote Indigenous children from communities like Yirrkala, are exempt from NAPLAN.  No children at Yirrkala were identified as exempt from NAPLAN testing.

This leads to the ridiculous situation where remote Indigenous children with almost no exposure to English language, especially in written form,    “must take the test under the same conditions as students who speak English as their first language and have their results evaluated in terms of the ‘typical achievement’ standards of mother tongue English speakers. “

Now one of the reasons why education Institutions and administrators resort to the category ‘recently arrived migrant from a non-English speaking background country’ as a proxy for children who do not yet have a sufficient grasp of Standard Australian English is because we don’t have sensible data on this matter.  We have data on children who have a language background other than English but this tells us nothing about their level of competence with written English.

This Inquiry could secure bipartisan support to fix this matter up – this is not a politicised, hot issue.  This is about applying definitions of technically relevant matters in an inclusive and fair manner. Children in years 3 and 5 who reside in communities where standard Australian English is not spoken could be either exempted from NAPLAN until their English language learning enables them to read English to a defined level.

Secondly, NAPLAN is not a culturally fair test and this further discriminates against remote Indigenous children.

Back again to Leonard Freeman:

….NAPLAN reading tests assess students’ reading ability by judging their answers to multiple choice questions which ask often complex questions about the reading material.

He provides the following example of a multiple choice item in a Year 3 reading test

‘But I feel funny about saying I own him’. What reason does Tim give for feeling this way?

a) Elvis is really Malcolm’s dog.

b) Tim thinks dogs cannot be owned.

c) All the family helps to look after Elvis.

d) Elvis is much older than Tim in dog years. 

It is pretty obvious that there is a great deal of non-accessible cultural knowledge required to eliminate supposedly irrelevant answers for this item.

These sorts of questions do not simply assess whether the student can read the reading material and basically comprehend the story; they go well beyond that. A Year 3 student from a remote Indigenous community who is still trying to master spoken English and western cultural norms would find a question like this very difficult to answer. The assumed knowledge, about dogs ages being measured by ‘dog years’, the use of the word ‘funny’ to mean uncomfortable rather than humorous, and the concept of questioning the definition of ownership are all things that would be unfamiliar to a child growing up in a remote indigenous setting.

The NAPLAN reading test actually tests analytical skills which are coated heavily in western cultural norms. 

Another example provided by Freeman of an item around the delivery of newspapers provides further insights into cultural inaccessibility.

The story begins with the householder complaining to the newspaper boy ‘you left the paper jutting out of the back of my box’ and we also learn the owner had previously complained the paper needs to be left ‘in line with the fence’. This question was designed to test whether students could infer the meaning of new words and constructions. Yet to do so the students need to be familiar with the cultural context, in this case the students need to know that houses have a box on their fence line where mail and newspaper deliveries are left.  If the student has grown up in a remote community or refugee camp where there are no letter boxes and few houses have fences they will not be able to access the meaning of the text. 

Thirdly, The lack of fit between the NAPLAN tests and the kinds of assessments needed to effectively support teachers in these challenging context leaves teachers unsupported and undermined.

Now it would be reasonable to expect that the NT Department of Education should be fully cognizant of these circumstances and to make it their business to ensure that the unintended consequences of this unintended situation could be addressed, or at least mitigated.  Sadly, when I worked in the NT I found that this was not the case.  And scrolling through their website today I found that nothing much had changed.  There is now an acknowledgement that Indigenous children are English Language learners but what this means in terms of resourcing is minimal and what it means for teachers across remote schools appears to be completely ignored.

The absurdity of this is best illustrated through the following personal experience of what can only be described as an absurd professional development event

This event took place at a beautiful new resort in the remote mining community on Groote.  The attendees at this session were principals and a group of their nominated teachers from schools in remote Indigenous communities.

The aim of the 3 days session was to ‘teach’ the attendees – all from remote Indigenous schools  – how to drill down into their schools test results and develop, not just a strategic, but a tactical response to what they find.  It was a highly structured event. First of all the groups were given a spreadsheet showing their NAPLAN results for al year levels and for all tested areas and a detailed worksheet to work through.

I sat next to a school team that came from a large school in Eastern Arnhem, similar in key features to Yirrkala.  It was also a school that ran a bilingual program, which meant that all student in year 3 and almost all in year 5 could, not yet read in English – even at a basic level.

This school had NAPLAN results that were marginally worse than the other schools represented.  At this school, in almost every subject, in almost every year level, 80 – 100% of the students scored zero – that is they did not get one answer right – not one.  Some classes in some schools had a small minority of students who did receive a higher score – a few even approaching the relevant band for their year but they were a tiny tiny minority.

The professional development session required the teachers to group their students by what they did not know.  For example – how many students did not understand the convention of the full stop?  Put a ring around these students.  The teachers next to me sighed and ringed the whole class.  And it went on like this for three whole days.  It was idiotic and devastating.

These teachers went back to the school not just demoralized but with decontextualised lesson plans on full stops, the sound ‘CH’, prime numbers and so on.

I tell this story because it is an extreme example of just how stupid it is for people to invent prescriptive solutions that must be rolled out across all schools, with no exception.

There is no doubt that this is damaging for teachers in remote schools.  It was political exposure about the poor NAPLAN results that forced Marion Scrymgour to preemptively abolish the struggling, underfunded bilingual program – something she later came to regret – for good reason.

Leonard Freeman sees the NT Department priorities and the experiences and struggles of remote teachers as heading down a collision course:

The NT government made a commitment to having 75% of NT students meet the Year 3 NAPLAN benchmarks and teaching programs are aimed at achieving this. The amount of English instruction is being increased under the misguided belief that elevating the focus and importance of English will yield better English results. 

The inclusion of ESL students in NAPLAN testing places ESL researchers, specialist ESL teachers and classroom teachers in a conflict between the principles of effective ESL teaching and assessment practices and the requirements of governments and education departments. Instead of working together to attain the best educational outcomes for students’ researchers, policy makers, teachers and governments are locked in a fundamental disagreement between meeting the needs of ESL students and the administrative and political advantages of a uniform testing regime.

 One of the perverse consequences of this is that programs which claim to accelerate English literacy or which are aimed at native English speakers are now favoured ahead of academically sound ESL programs which demonstrate the genuine progression of ESL students.

It has also led to effective and evidence-based programs such as the Step Model bilingual program to be shut down to the detriment of Indigenous ESL students.

Now some readers this may be thinking that I am arguing for lower expectations for remote Indigenous children.  This is not my message.  These children get exposed to English in school for the first time and it is often their third and fourth language.

We exempt newly arrived LBOTE children ‘down south’ not because we expect less of them but because we recognize that their learning journey has to include an additional learning pathway.  But we do not expect less of them in the long run.

Back to Freeman again:

… an ESL approach is not a lesser approach. It is aimed at getting students who are speakers of other languages to a point where they can access mainstream education. A program may be deemed ineffective if ESL students never reach age-grade performance, but ESL programs that successfully move students along the continuum at a rate that is acceptable based on the research should be regarded as valid and ideal for ESL learners.

It is important to recognise the research which shows that it takes a minimum of 4 years, and more like 7 years, to achieve proficiency in a second language to a level that is sufficient for academic pursuits. The efficacy of ESL programs should be judged against the backdrop of this research.

So what are the small steps Governments could take in order to stop getting in the way of effective education for remote Indigenous children

  1. Stop NAPLAN Testing for remote Indigenous children until year 7.
  2. In the meantime, agree on an alternative form of testing[1] that is more appropriate for ESL students in terms of cultural content and recognition of ESL learning stages
  3. Address cultural bias in NAPLAN testing so that when remote Indigenous students are linguistically ready to sit the tests they can understand what is being asked of them
  4. Develop a national agreed English Language Learner Scale (ELLS) to replace LBOTE as a student  category so there is a far and consistent way to measure disadvantage based on English language learning needs

[1] The ACER Longitudinal Literacy  and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students (LLANS) test has been trialled in all states and territories with both indigenous and non-indigenous students. Researchers have now aligned the LLANS test results to the NAPLAN data scores. So it would be possible for ESL students in the primary years to be given an appropriate test which can give a much clearer indication of their actual literacy and numeracy skills.


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