Dr Les Perelman, a retired professor of writing in the US, was recently commissioned by the NSW Federation of Teachers to undertake a review of the NAPLAN writing assessment task.

His report, entitled Towards a New NAPLAN: Testing to the Teaching, was handed down yesterday and presents a damning assessment of the major writing component of the test.

“[It is] by far the most absurd and the least valid of any test that I have seen,” Perelman told the ABC. 

Perelman’s criticism focuses on the "highly reductive" way NAPLAN measures students’ writing ability, giving too much weight to “spelling, grammar, and other mechanics than to communicating meaning”.

“Its focus on low-level skills causes it to de-emphasise the key components of effective written communication,” he says.

“Writing exists to communicate ideas and information. Yet Ideas is given only 5 marks, while Spelling is given 6…”

“Teaching to this test will make students poor writers by having them focus on non-essential tasks such as memorising spelling lists,” he concludes.

The former director of Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has conducted similar reviews of writing assessment around the world, most notably the essay component of the US Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

Following a study of essay samples, Perelman observed “that the writing that would receive a high mark was formulaic, artificial, and had little to do with real-world or even real academic writing”, criticism that was influential in seeing the SAT writing task replaced with a re-designed version.

Perelman says close comparisons can be drawn between the original SAT writing component and the NAPLAN task.

“My study of the NAPLAN essay marking has produced a similar conclusion about the disassociation of the NAPLAN marking scheme from any authentic construct of writing ability,” he says.

“…its emphasis on form and the correct spelling of certain words makes it even easier to provide students with construct irrelevant strategies to attain high marks.”

National President of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association (ALEA) and Professor of English Curriculum and Literacy Education at Griffith University, Beryl Exley, says the report has identified valid areas of concern in the NAPLAN writing assessment.

“The real danger is that so much quality teaching time is lost when these more tangible aspects of the NAPLAN writing task become the model for the teaching of writing instead of the more finessed writing goals of the English curriculum,” she says.

“In addition to the marking criterion highlighted by Dr Perelman, there’s other criterion such as ‘audience’ and ‘ideas’ that add to a student’s score.

“In comparison, ‘audience’ and ‘ideas’ carry less weight than the raft of more objective criterion, such as a range of persuasive devices, range of vocabulary, accuracy of spelling and correct punctuation etc.

“It’s this imbalance in scoring that means the more objective criterion become the focus of skill and drill in writing lessons,” Exley says.

NSW Teachers Federation President Maurie Mulheron has welcomed Perelman’s findings.

“This historic Perelman Report now provides overwhelming evidence that the existing NAPLAN testing regime is harming our students and harming our nation,” he said in a statement. 

“…[it] shows that NAPLAN is a recipe for mediocrity, reinforcing low level student writing capacities at the expense of higher order performance skills.”

But a spokesperson from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) said that NAPLAN was still an “important tool” which generated “useful” data to parents, teachers and education systems.

“The NAPLAN marking guide (rubric) focuses on the fundamentals of effective writing — spelling and grammar” and should be differentiated from other testing measures, the spokesperson said.

“Dr Perelman’s report assesses NAPLAN through comparison to other standardised assessments which have different purposes and audiences, for example, the American SAT which is a university entrance exam.”

“NAPLAN is a check on the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy learning.”

ACARA welcomed “input on refinements” to the test but would “continue to work to ensure that NAPLAN does what it is meant to – assess the literacy and numeracy skills that are essential for every student to progress through school and life,” the spokesperson said.