You’ve very likely seen recent media reports on Dr Perelman’s review of the NAPLAN writing test. Dr Perelman was commissioned by the NSW Teachers’ Federation to review this test, and he has some highly critical things to say – bizarre, severely defective in its design and execution, by far the most absurd and the least valid of any test that I’ve seen. Our students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 will be sitting their NAPLAN tests in just a few weeks. Is there anything positive that can come from this?
I do not want to be seen as a strong advocate for NAPLAN because I’m as aware of its limitations as anyone. However, neither do I want to dismiss it as something entirely unhelpful or irrelevant.
NAPLAN points us to a comprehensive range of skills essential for effective writing. It encourages students to think about sentence, paragraph and text structure, vocabulary, spelling, language devices, punctuation, cohesion, audience and ideas. A strong grasp of these writing elements is essential if ideas are to be conveyed with clarity and precision.
What does Dr Perelman say about NAPLAN’s focus on vocabulary, for instance? He is scathing about rewarding students for using challenging words rather than simple words. I agree with him that simple, precise, direct language is generally the best way to express ideas. (I really don’t like ‘utilise’ if we can say ‘use’; nothing is gained by using the bigger word, so we should stick with the simple one.) However, when we have complex ideas, we need complex words to express them in a clear and direct way. We need to encourage our students to use challenging words, so they’re equipped to express sophisticated ideas.
I do agree that the NAPLAN marking criteria put more weight on technical skills than on ideas, and I agree that this is a serious weakness with the test. There is no doubt that the strength of any composition lies with the ideas that are expressed. Are they reflecting higher-order thinking or imaginative concepts? Are they developed or well reasoned? Are they supported with evidence? Do they reflect mature thoughts in an authentic way? Though not entirely overlooked, these areas deserve more attention than they get in the NAPLAN test.
But let’s not forget that if we don’t have strong control over the technical skills, the magnificence of our ideas will be lost in the mess. There is plenty to be gained from looking at the skills tested by NAPLAN as key components of effective writing. We continue to take what is positive from this test as we support our students in improving the quality of their writing.