Barely a month after we concluded a major critical review of the annual Australian NAPLAN tests of children’s literary and numeracy, President Obama has written an open letter to American parents and teachers calling for a halt to the proliferation of similar surveys in America.

This short article provides a historical background and outlines the issues.

American and Australian Anxieties

After World War 2, America emerged as a superpower, replacing a century of dominance by Great Britain – the empire upon which the sun never set. But America was in for a rude shock when it lost the first battle of the space race with Sputnik orbiting in 1957. America upped its space program and only 12 years later put men on the moon. It also developed a great paranoia which haunts it to this day.

It prompted America’s educational authorities to engage in a proliferation of numeracy and literacy tests that have disrupted school teaching programs for a long time. President Obama says in his open letter to parents and teachers: “I’ve heard from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students. I want to fix that.”

Please read what the President has to say, and listen to him on the audio-visual recording at the end of his letter! This is highly relevant in Australia too, because the anxiety about the quality of school teaching has spread here, triggered by surveys showing other countries like China, South Korea, and Finland and Estonia in Europe, doing “better” than Australia.

Before Julia Gillard became Prime Minister in 2010, she headed the “super department” of education, employment and workplace relations and launched the $16 billion “Building the Education Revolution” program of which $14 billion was allocated to improve primary school halls, libraries and classrooms. The main purpose was to boost economic activity following the 2007-08 global financial crisis. But the mounting anxiety over Australia’s ability to compete internationally was behind the Gillard department’s introduction of NAPLAN in 2008, emulating the American tests of children’s literacy and numeracy.

NAPLAN – a disruptive and expensive scheme

  • All students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are supposed to take the annual NAPLAN test.1
  • It is centred on literacy and numeracy intending to provide nationally comparable comprehensive data on student performance.
  • The tests take place in May and each assessment places the student in one of six bands: the lowest fail according to the criteria laid down (5- 8% of students), the second band just meets the standard set independently by the relevant education authorities, and the four upper bands show students doing better than the minimum standard.
  • Some results contain useful statistical comparisons, notably the identification of relative excellence of those students in the top band. It shows important differences such as the deep disadvantage of Indigenous students, and more generally students in rural and remote schools.2
  • But at what costs are these surveys undertaken? It is estimated that the annual tests cost around $100m, mainly associated with the efforts of schools to prepare for and accommodate the survey, rearrange educational programs that get disrupted, and deal with the students who are often traumatised struggling to do what the authorities tell them is very important for their school.3

  • The survey results differ little from year to year. A triennial survey would save two-thirds of the cost.
  • The survey is unrelated to the general curriculum and interferes with the schools’ education programs.
  • Literacy and numeracy are important general criteria but NAPLAN concentrates on them to the exclusion of other areas of learning including music and other arts – areas needed in a rounded education that are disrupted to make place for the preparations for NAPLAN as well as the actual tests.
  • Despite the seemingly solid statistics in NAPLAN’s voluminous reports the results show inconsistencies, for example apparent differences between more senior students achieving excellency in literacy and numeracy – implausibly suggesting that the two groups don’t have the same ability for further education.
  • The detailed results of our analysis are supplemented by numerous comments from teachers and academics. The “Say no to NAPLAN” campaign is alive and well, despite active lack of backing by the head of government as in America. It might be timely to request it!
  • One critic referred to the cartoon below which sums NAPLAN up neatly. It is attributed to Einstein, though he may not be guilty!

Need to Change

NAPLAN gives some valuable insights into the abilities of different groups of school students, especially those who identify relative excellence. This is the only useful reflection of the anxiety that governments have built up amongst schools and parents — but it could be unearthed in other ways.

It is essential to ensure that as many students as possible benefit from good education, for their own future and ultimately Australia’s global status.

NAPLAN is expensive and disruptive. The first change that logically comes to mind is make NAPLAN triennial, not annual. Little information will be lost. Probably this initial change can be replaced by a well-designed survey which would reduce and maybe even largely eliminate the current tensions.

The high cost of NAPLAN contrasts starkly with the starvation diet spooned out to other cultural activities in Australia, especially in the two most recent government budgets. This applies especially to projects initiated by small organisations and individual artists who are leading the most creative artistic moves by musicians and other Australian artists into future decades.

Increasing this funding would be a genuine way to ensure that Australia is not lagging behind internationally.


Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, 1 November 2015.


  1. NAPLAN stands for “National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy”.↩︎
  2. This was seen as a main feature when we wrote the Knowledge Base paper but goes unnoticed in the lengthy official reports on NAPLAN.↩︎
  3. Most of the $100m does not show up in any accounts but represent costs that are diverted from school activities to make room for NAPLAN — similar to what economists call opportunity costs.↩︎

Hans founded his own consulting firm, Economic Strategies Pty Ltd, in 1984, following 25 years with larger organisations. He specialised from the outset in applied cultural economics — one of his first major projects was The Australian Music Industry for the Music Board of the Australia Council (published in 1987), which also marks his first connection with Richard Letts who was the Director of the Music Board in the mid-1980s. Hans first assisted the Music Council of Australia in 2000 and between 2006 and 2008 proposed and developed the Knowledge Base, returning in an active capacity as its editor in 2011. In November 2013 the Knowledge Base was transferred to The Music Trust, with MCA's full cooperation.

Between 2000 and 2010 Hans also authored or co-authored several major domestic and international climate change projects, using scenario planning techniques to develop alternative long-term futures. He has for several years been exploring the similarities between the economics of cultural and ecological change, and their continued lack of political clout which is to a large extent due to conventional GDP data being unable to measure the true value of our cultural and environmental capital. This was announced as a major scenario-planning project for The Music Trust in March 2014 (articles of particular relevance to the project are marked *, below).

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