These might sound like catastrophised fears spouted by children too young to know better, but for the cohorts of students that face the NAPLAN regime each year, the anxiety over not performing can be very real. 

Dr Angelique Howell, a researcher from the University of Queensland, has bothered to ask what so few in research circles have: what are students’ lived experiences of NAPLAN? 

And what are their unanswered fears and anxieties over the ‘low-stakes’ test? 

A former teacher, Howell was determined to use her research to give children a platform to share their thoughts. 

“…there is a lot of adult talk about NAPLAN but we are sharing very little from the ones that actually take the test, so to me it seems a bit odd that we are talking about the students without including them in the conversation,” she explains.

Working with students across two schools, Howell began to probe for some answers. 

Her findings are raw, occasionally comical, and at times rather unsettling. 

“What some of the Grade 3s were saying is that if ‘I don’t do well in NAPLAN that means I won’t get into a good university, and then I’m not going to have a job when I grow up and I might have nowhere to live’ – so this is really high-stakes,” Howell shares.

“I’ve got a drawing from a little girl in Year 3 and she’s got herself inside a cage and there are these sort of arcs emanating from  her that take up the whole page that represent her shaking. 

“To describe her drawing she says ‘when I am scared I am shaking’.”

The problem is, Howell concludes, that in a bid to blot out children’s anxiety in the lead up to NAPLAN testing, teachers and parents have simply avoided discussing the assessment and its true intent. 

Irrational fears – such as those espoused by one youngster who confided that he believed he might get kicked out of school if he didn’t do well – may be the consequence. 

“…the downside is that then the kids aren’t getting any information. The other thing that is contributing to [those misconceptions] is that kids are getting a lot of mixed messages…

“We have to acknowledge that it’s really hard for teachers and parents to give a consistent message because there’s so many different ideas about NAPLAN that are being debated and contested within the community,” Howell says. 

The expert is now calling for “greater consistency” between policy, research and classroom practice to ensure that students’ anxieties over NAPLAN, however fanciful they seem, are addressed. 

“I think our society has a tendency to fob children off because they are children, so it’s easy for adults to sit back and say ‘oh, fancy saying you’ll end up without a job in case you failed a Grade 3 NAPLAN test, how stupid’.

“But for kids that’s their reality, that’s where they are. 

“So we do need to give them those opportunities to express their concerns, to ask questions, to be taken seriously.”