The adverse impact of high-stakes testing

Malcolm Turnbull
Research Fellow at the Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne

Forty per cent of parents reported that their child experienced stress due to NAPLAN testing

Developed within parameters of the Howard government’s National Goals for Schooling in the 21st century and formally launched by the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in 2008, the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) was set up to supercede and standardise a range of state-based assessment tools (among them including the Learning Assessment Program in Victoria and the Basic Skills Testing Program in NSW).

According to ACARA, NAPLAN was designed to provide a measure a) of how individual students were performing at a given time; b) of whether students were meeting national literacy and numeracy benchmarks, and c) of how educational programs were working in schools. Delivery of the suite of tests (aimed at assessing student attainment in Reading, Writing, Language conventions and Numeracy at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9) has since become an annual (and compulsory) fixture of the school calendar across the country.

From the outset, NAPLAN has elicited mixed and divergent responses within both educational and general communities, precipitating two Senate inquiries and exciting extensive media coverage and recurrent (sometimes heated) public debate. Almost a decade after its creation, criticism continues to surround the content, delivery and dissemination (per the MySchool website) of NAPLAN itself.

Although ACARA insists that the program is not a “high-stakes” intervention (see, for instance, McGaw 2012; Jacks & Cook, 2015), there is persistent concern about unintended implications or perceived misuses of the testing regime.

Unsurprisingly, given the substantial international evidence on the negative impacts of standardised testing (see for instance, Perrine 1991, Stiggins 1999, Gregory & Clark 2003, Schroeder 2006), serious questions have been raised — and continue to be raised — as to whether such testing, throughout their school years, is in the best interests of the million young Australians who sit NAPLAN each year (Polesel, Dulfer & Turnbull, 2012).

The most comprehensive attempt at addressing these questions to date has been the multi-tiered Experience of Education research project, initiated by the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney and conducted over three years (2011-2014) in collaboration with the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education and the Foundation for Young Australians.

Seeking to address the key research question, “Do the benefits and value of NAPLAN outweigh a) its shortcomings and ambiguousness as a diagnostic tool, or b) its unintended consequences (specifically the impacts on school students and their families, and their health and well-being?”, the project has encompassed two phases of data collection and analysis.

This data has production of four major reports under the collective heading The Experience of Education: The Impacts of High Stakes Testing on School Students and Their Families. (A by-product of the project was a joint submission by the Whitlam Institute and the MGSE to the 2013 Senate Inquiry into NAPLAN).

In highlighting long-standing concerns within the British and American education sectors about the reliability and validity of standardised tests, and the impacts of testing on teacher expectations, pedagogy, curriculum, the quality of learning experiences and student health, the first report, a systematic literature review (Polesel, Dulfer & Turnbull 2012), confirmed both a distinct shortage of Australian evidence as to the connections between student wellbeing and NAPLAN, and the need for rigorous and scientific exploration of the issue, which informed the Experience of Education initiative.

In a subsequent publication titled "An Educator’s Perspective", Dulfer, Polesel & Rice (2012) collated the responses of 8300 Australian educators to an online survey eliciting their views on the impacts of NAPLAN on enrolments, curriculum, teaching approaches, learning and student health.

Reinforcing concerns raised in the literature, the survey found a widespread view within the teaching profession that NAPLAN is, or has become, high-stakes testing, and strong feelings within the profession as to both the limitations of the testing instrument and its detrimental effect on curriculum breadth, staff morale, student retention and student wellbeing.

A third report titled “Parental attitudes and perceptions concerning NAPLAN” tabulated and analysed findings of a parent survey conducted by Newspoll in May-June 2013. Responses were mixed, the report noting, for instance, that a majority (56 per cent) of parents were in favour of NAPLAN and that 70 per cent believed it to be useful in providing information. (Teachers had been equally divided in their estimation of NAPLAN’s usefulness).

At the same time, the report noted that 40 per cent of parents reported their child having exhibited some signs of stress as a result of the tests.

Informed and shaped by the preceding reports, a final report titled "The Experience of Education: The Impacts of High Stakes Testing on School Students and Their Families" (Wyn, Turnbull and Grimshaw 2014) drew on data from focus groups and interviews with students, parents and staff of 16 state and independent schools across five different geographical regions of Victoria and NSW. The findings provided compelling confirmation of the overall findings in the Literature Review and Teacher survey.

On the one hand, NAPLAN undoubtedly had some positive uses, even value (for instance: in informing parental choice, as a diagnostic tool, as a means for enabling teachers and parents to contextualise each student’s performance nationally, as a ready source of statistical answers, as a potential catalyst for improving teaching standards). In particular, supporters of the program cited its usefulness for families, educators and government as a source of consistent information.

On the other hand, questions about NAPLAN’s reliability, validity and limitations having been raised consistently (and frequently) since the program’s inception, serious doubts persist as to whether the NAPLAN testing regime is in the best interests of young Australians. In drawing directly the experiences of young people, their families and educators, The Experience of Education project found that:

  • by concentrating so intensely on the measurement of literacy and numeracy performance, NAPLAN is, in fact, undermining the quality of young people’s education;
rather than helping foster what the Melbourne Declaration has identified as “a sense of self-worth, self-awareness and personal identity” (p.30), in a significant number of cases, NAPLAN is creating anxiety and a sense of exclusion and failure; and undermining alternative pedagogical approaches targeting ESL students or students from low SES backgrounds;

  • given its promotion to parents as a tool for testing “essential skills” (p.7), the dissemination of test results on comparative League tables, reports of pressures on school performance linked to funding and a growing tendency to link results to Secondary School selection, the awarding of scholarships and even graduation (see Hiatt, 2013; Jacks & Cook, 2015), NAPLAN is, or has become, a high-stakes intervention that “has negative implications for the quality of education that children and young people experience in Australian schools” (Wyn, Turnbull & Grimshaw, 2014, p.30).

This article was facilitated by Professor Johanna Wyn, Director, Youth Research Centre, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne.


Dulfer, N., Polesel, J. & Rice, S. (2012) The Experience of Education: the impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families. An educator’s perspective, Sydney: Whitlam Institute

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Jacks, T. & Cook, H. (2015) NAPLAN results form part of schools’ high stakes selection process, Age Victoria, 15 May

McGaw, B. (2012) NAPLAN myths: It’s not a high-stakes test, The Conversation, 30 November, http:the (retrieved 20 May 2013)

Newspoll (2013) The Experience of Education: the impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families. Parental attitudes and perceptions concerning NAPLAN: a survey of parents by NEWSPOLL commissioned by the Whitlam Institute, Sydney: Whitlam Institute

Perrone, E. (1991) On standardised testing, Childhood Education, 67:132-144
Polesel, J., Dulfer, N. & Turnbull, M. (2012) The Experience of Education: the impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families. Literature review, Sydney: Whitlam Institute

Schroeder, L. (2006) What high-stakes testing means for the emotional well-being of students and teachers, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Graduate University, Claremont

Stiggins, R. (1999) Assessment, student confidence and school success, Phi Delta Kappan 81(3): 191-198
Wyn, J., Turnbull, M. & Grimshaw, L. (2014) The Experience of Education: the impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families. A qualitative study, Sydney: Whitlam Institute

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