Are indigenous children given a fair go by NAPLAN? Photo: albertogp123 / Foter / CC BY


Concerns have been raised that a national literacy and numeracy test is unfair towards indigenous children, writes Lucy Cormack.

New linguistics research from the University of Melbourne suggests that the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test discriminates against indigenous children.

NAPLAN testing is conducted in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 and assesses children nationally in reading, writing, language and numeracy.

Dr Debbie Loakes played a key role in the research and says that NAPLAN testing works against indigenous children as it doesn’t highlight the proficiency of those from Aboriginal backgrounds who speak another language at home. She said, “The test is supposed to be measuring development in English language, and if English language is not their home language or their primary language, then it’s not actually measuring the right thing.”

The national test has consistently come under fire from various groups, but the recent research says that the test sets cultural contexts that exclude Aboriginals.

Many Aboriginal families in remote areas speak creole at home, a mixed language which contains both English constructions and indigenous language constructions, but Dr Loakes says NAPLAN does not recognise this.

“Some people wrongly believe that creole is like broken English or bad English, and some of the multiple choice questions in the NAPLAN [test] actually have more than one correct answer if you speak creole as your first language, so that’s obviously a disadvantage to an indigenous child.”

She says there are many other examples which could provide a barrier to Aboriginal children, such as references to a ‘newsagency’, or a young boy on his ‘paper route,’ which for children in remote communities could be completely foreign.

Kevin Pope is the Principal of Meadow Heights primary school in Melbourne, a public school made up of 42 different cultural backgrounds, 145 single parent families and with 80 per cent of its community from non-English speaking backgrounds.

He is one of the few public school teachers who have spoken out publicly against NAPLAN and its possible discrimination against indigenous and migrant children.

“I think NAPLAN is a profound waste of public money,  it doesn’t add any value to our school. All it tends to do is every year [is] label our children and our school as a failure, and it’s not a failure at all. It’s rich, diverse and engaging. The fact is our kids have different starting points,” said Mr Pope.

He said that cultural experiences are vital in ensuring indigenous and migrant children are given the proper faculties to engage with Anglo-Saxon culture.  “Give me and schools like ours the money that they spend on NAPLAN and let us give the kids experiences, to get a reading intervention teacher,  or to have the money to go on a camp without having to save for five years,” Mr Pope added.

John Hobson, a lecturer within the Koori Centre at the University of Sydney, says that the NAPLAN test should by no means reflect the overall literacy and numeracy abilities of indigenous children. He said:

“Things like literacy and numeracy are not language dependant – so children can be highly literate in their own language but simply by virtue of the fact they’re not a native English [speaker], the literacy hasn’t transferred, so they’ll show up as having poor literacy skills when it’s really only a measure of their English literacy, not a measure of their literacy in their native language.”

He says it is important that education systems are supporting the learning of indigenous children in turn with their cultural heritage, and that NAPLAN could potentially fail to achieve this.

“I think unless its culturally grounded in the universe in which the children live, you should expect it to be fairly meaningless, it would be a bit like exposing suburban Australian Anglo-Saxon kids to [a] Turkish or Hungarian cultural background education system – a lot of things just wouldn’t make sense, they wouldn’t be familiar, even minor things can cause a significant obstruction to learning.”

As a public school teacher who works directly with migrant and indigenous children daily, Pope says he hopes that the disadvantages placed on such kids will be realised, and the NAPLAN system will be adapted.

“The alternative to NAPLAN is to develop a curriculum that’s directly related to where a child’s learning is, and has to go, and it has to be rigorous, and it has to be done in a way that’s transparent and adds value.”