Published on August 11, 2023

Last week parents and guardians of students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 received their child’s NAPLAN results.

NAPLAN testing provides schools with an invaluable data point in terms of how individual students and cohorts are tracking in relation to numeracy and literacy standards. NAPLAN is a benchmarking tool: a way in which schools, teachers and parents can compare a cohort’s and individual’s performance in core competencies against normative benchmarks and against previous cohorts within a school. NAPLAN helps us identify and reflect on areas of strength and development.

The publication of NAPLAN results provides a great opportunity to reflect on the nature and purpose of assessment. In education, we talk about four types of assessment. You can see a summary of the four types below:

Type Definition and Example Purpose
External These are external assessments, usually examinations, marked by an authority external. Examples include HSC exams, IB Diploma exams, AllWell Testing, ICAS, NAPLAN, ACER etc. External assessments provide a point in time assessment that is externally validated. In this sense, their purpose is to validate the work occurring in schools or measure the success of a school’s learning programme. They are viewed as objective and reliable because they are externally validated and provide a benchmarking reference point against other “like” schools. They are also a data point for celebrating a school’s success and for identifying where interventions might be necessary for a cohort or subject area. In the case of final Year 12 examinations their purpose is usually a grade calculation that can be used for university entrance.
Common These are assessments undertaken by all students in a cohort e.g., a common mathematics or writing task across a year level. The purpose of common assessments is track a cohort of students progress in relation to core skills or knowledge within a discipline or core competency area. Common assessments are usually devised by a school to measure student progress against the school’s overarching curriculum standards.
End of Unit Assessment Assessments that take place at the end of a unit of work and they could be tests or major projects. Often teachers teaching the same unit of work will use the same end of unit assessment, however this does not need to be the case. The purpose of end of unit assessments is to determine whether a student has grasped the learning in that unit. These assessments usually cover all learning outcomes for the unit of work and are used to determine any further supports a student needs to access the learning in the next unit of work. In this sense it has a diagnostic function as well as a summative one.
Ongoing Assessment (often called formative)  This is multifaceted and includes any work done in class; quizzes and tests; planning and progress on a major task; homework, and other opportunities through which student can demonstrate their learning. In essence, it can be any work a student produces. It also includes the observations of teachers as they watch a student learning and demonstrating this learning. Portfolios are a collection of a student’s ongoing assessment. The purpose of ongoing assessment is learning. It is iterative and about giving students the opportunity to practice, get feedback, and try again. Ongoing assessment is powerful: it is learning in the moment. It is the everyday opportunities students have to demonstrate their growing mastery in skills, knowledge, understanding and the development of attitudes.


When NAPLAN results are released, our attention is naturally drawn to external, benchmarked assessments. When NAPLAN was introduced in Australia some schools started teaching to the NAPLAN test as this was seen as a measure of a school’s success. I think we have moved on from this somewhat, but I don’t think we do enough to educate the broader community on the diverse ways in which we assess student learning in schools.

External assessments are valued but they assess a narrow range of skills and knowledge. Ron Richhart, (who has worked with parents, teachers and school leaders around the world) states in Creating Cultures of Thinking that when asked “What type of adults do you want your children/students to become?” people ultimately focus

On attributes that drive learning: curiosity, inquisitiveness, questioning. And those that facilitate innovation: creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking, imagination and inquisitiveness. There are the skills they need to get along with others: collaboration, empathy, good listening, helpfulness. And those that support the ability to deal with complexity: analysis, making connections, critical thinking. …

You’ll notice that there are few traditional academic skills mentioned. Does that mean they aren’t important? Of course not. It’s just that they do not adequately define the kind of students we collectively hope to send into the world. Nor do they define the kind of employee whom businesses are looking to hire in the twenty-first century.

– Richhart. R. (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces we must master to truly transform our schools. P. 17

While my sample size is small, I would agree with Richhart that most adults involved in education (as staff or parents) want their children to have the competencies noted above. And yet, we caught in the numbers game very easily. Our preference as human beings is to look for the quick and easy data points (provided by external assessments) and we struggle to see the long game. Parents will sometimes say to me that the reason they send their child to HVGS is to get a good HSC result and thereby a good ATAR. I understand this impulse and we live up to these expectations: the majority of our students achieve their potential in their HSC with incredible support from an amazing team of teachers.

However, if we reduce learning to that ATAR number, then we lose an opportunity and we narrow our focus. We start to see Year 7 as a training ground for Year 12. We also see year 7 as a training ground for final examinations. We start teaching to the test and focus only on one metric of success in learning.

Don’t get me wrong, we do have to “train’” students to undertake exams and we must ensure there is a strong continuum of knowledge and skills for each subject discipline in the Senior School.

However, we can, should and do much more than this. Moreover, our students need us to do so much more, as do their future employers or employees.

Coming back to the four types of assessment, to achieve this we need to focus most of our energy as educators on ongoing assessment: what is happening every day in our classrooms. There is learning happening everywhere and it is inspiring. There is also struggle happening everywhere as students grapple with ideas, concepts and skills. Ongoing, mastery-based assessment provides us with an opportunity to assess the competencies Richhart references above. The Personal Project Year 10 Showcase last week was a testament to the role of ongoing assessment and feedback throughout a process. Students created phenomenal artefacts to demonstrate their learning because of the ongoing feedback loop they experienced. The Personal Project is a great example of these attributes in action: “attributes that drive learning: curiosity, inquisitiveness, questioning. And those that facilitate innovation: creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking, imagination and inquisitiveness.” Likewise for the Year 6 Exhibition or the recent Year 1 drama performances.

Being an IB World School challenges us to look beyond the essential metrics of success that external data points provide to focus on ongoing assessment and mastery learning. In the PYP and MYP there are assessment rubrics students and teachers use to provide feedback, set goals and make explicit what it is that students need to be able to know, do or understand.

Ongoing assessment is at the heart of learning – it is where learning happens the most because it is where students can get immediate feedback from their teacher, peer, parents and others. I often like to frame it as “looking for learning”, which is what our teachers do every day in the classroom. They are looking for learning and opportunities to give our students feedback so they can keep feeling challenged to grow across a range of attributes, continue to solidify their core competencies, and increasingly build their capacity to be autonomous learners.

The goal of schools is not the HSC: the goal of schools is to foster a love of learning and the attributes students need to be learners and thinkers. At no time has this been more important than now, as Adam Grant writes in Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know:

As consumers of information, we have a role to play in embracing a more nuanced point of view. When we’re reading, listening or watching, we can learn to recognise complexity as a signal of credibility. We can favour content and sources that present many sides of an issue rather than just one or two. When we come across simplifying headlines, we can fight our tendency to accept binaries by asking what additional perspectives are missing between two extremes.

– Cited in Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart, p. 70

Our children are consumers of information and they have a responsibility to think more critically, embrace ambiguity and complexity, and respond with empathy. The more that we focus on a broader concept of assessment – and think beyond external data points – the more we create space for the development of the type of human beings our world needs.

At the Open Day last week and in the architect’s sessions on Wednesday 9th June, our students embodied much of what Richhart mentions above. They do that because we value them not just as a number, but as people who deserve to and want to keep on learning and growing.

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca is the Principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School. She has a Masters of Education, International Education from Monash University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Queensland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Arts, History and English from the University of Tasmania.