Thirty-five students in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 participated across the two schools.
The first school intensively prepared students for the tests while the second continued its normal program of teaching and learning.
Students were then interviewed by researchers and asked expressed their feelings about NAPLAN through words and drawings.
The lead author of the study, Dr Katharine Swain of Flinders University, said every student’s experience was different, but that the contrast between the schools was stark.
At the first school, “NAPLAN preparation commenced in weeks one and two of the school year and involved two-thirds of each day in Years 3, 5 and 7 classrooms, testing, marking and re-testing literacy and numeracy concepts pertinent to NAPLAN testing”.
Multiple students at the first school expressed dissatisfaction with their teachers, or even fear, often connected to pressure to perform well on practice tests.
Students variously found NAPLAN and NAPLAN preparation “boring”, “horrible”, and “exciting”, with one Year 3 student complaining that “there is less games now and less art” than in Year 2.
Students across all year levels noted stress from the time pressure imposed by the tests.
They “complained of sleepless nights and feeling sick preceding the testing period and feeling uncomfortable and tired during the testing period", according to the study.
Some also "complained of watery eyes and eye strain, sore hands and headaches".
One student, however, found the tests “easy” and said they did not challenge him.
“Sometimes I just want to stay in bed. I don’t like the easy work, like number facts, every single day we have to do them,’’ he said.
Students at the first school suggested that if they had a choice in how they were assessed, they would prefer demonstrations of their learning, such as building something or making a PowerPoint presentation.
The common theme was a preference for “assessment which is thoroughly explained with clear expectations … not assessment which is externally set and marked, such as NAPLAN.”
The second school changed very little in response to NAPLAN.
Students were introduced to the NAPLAN test format and relevant content just two weeks before the tests, and the curriculum was “barely altered.”
Students at the second school “enjoyed spending time with the teachers”, and appeared to enjoy learning at school.
They reported minimal stress or pressure associated with NAPLAN.
While some Year 5 students saw the increased focus on NAPLAN in the fortnight before the tests as an inconvenience, they did not blame their teachers.
Curriculum at the second school remained focused on tasks connected to students’ lives and interests.
They were involved in “research, design and problem solving” through such projects as investigating “famous inventors and inventions through history.”
In the lead up to the tests, students at the second school showed fewer signs of fear or anxiety.
Although some were “frightened and nervous”, “anxious”, or “confused”, others were “excited”, “happy”, or “ready”.
The only physical reaction commonly reported was feeling sick in the lead up to the tests.
Students at both schools seemed unsettled by knowledge that the government was somehow involved in the tests, and “spoke of government as something to be feared".
Swain has cautioned that the schools surveyed are unique, and her study cannot be used to generalise about all schools.
Nonetheless, she believes it provides valuable insight.
“One can speculate that there are other schools engaging in similar ways, and schools ranging everywhere along the spectrum in between and perhaps beyond,” she says.
As such, she considers it likely that the way NAPLAN is implemented is “having a significant effect on the experiences of many students, potentially leading to disengagement from learning”.
Swain says the study was designed to give a voice to the students participating
For all the debate over NAPLAN, little attention is given to students’ perceptions of the tests, she says.
“Relationships develop between students and teachers when teachers genuinely listen to the voices of their students, and students believe that what they say truly matters.”