The NAPLAN national school tests system has come under fire from stressed-out teachers who say they and their students feel under too much pressure to achieve good results.
All children are tested on reading, writing, grammar and maths in years three, five, seven and nine.
But a survey of more than 8,000 teachers and principals, carried out for the University of Western Sydney's Whitlam Institute, found that more than half of the teachers assessed said they were spending more time on teaching specifically for the test, and less time on face-to-face learning.
Thirty-nine per cent of the teachers who responded said they were teaching by rote, staging weekly tests aimed at boosting NAPLAN performances at the expense of other subjects like art, music and language.
And they said students were showing increasing levels of stress before the tests, with children crying, experiencing sleepless nights, and even hiding under their desks as the tests approach.
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"In some areas the majority of teachers are reporting instances of anxiety, which can be everything from crying, sleeplessness, not wanting to sit the test, and we've got a number of reports for example of students hiding under the desks when the tests are on," Whitlam Institute director Eric Sidoti said.
Teacher responses in NAPLAN study
- 90 per cent felt at least some students reported feeling stressed about NAPLAN.
- 60 per cent stated at least some students reported crying due to stress.
- 80 per cent said some students felt sick before the test.
- 95 per cent felt 'weaker than expected' results would negatively affect the school's reputation.
- Two-thirds of principals thought NAPLAN was a diagnostic tool for teachers.
- But 58 per cent of teachers believed NAPLAN was not a diagnostic tool.
"These are quite high levels of stress for some students."
A total of 72 per cent of teachers said they believed the purpose of NAPLAN was to be a school ranking tool, while 70 per cent agreed it was also a policing tool.
Education Minister Peter Garrett has defended the NAPLAN regime, saying the "self-selecting" survey represented "about 3 per cent of union members".
"I don't think this survey is helpful," he told ABC News Breakfast.
"Whenever I go to schools I talk to parents, teachers and kids about NAPLAN and that's not the message I'm getting.
"I think this survey is of extremely limited value.
"What it does show is some teachers still don't understand both how and why we should actually deliver NAPLAN into the classroom. Remember, it's not a pass/fail test.
"If schools and teachers teach NAPLAN in the way in which its intended, there's no reason at all why this should be extra pressure on kids in the classroom," he added.
"NAPLAN's really important for us, and most principals and teachers I talk to know that, because it helps us understand how kids are travelling in those basics of literacy and numeracy.
"We need to have that understanding. It drives us in education reform and improving schools."
In the wake of the survey results, the Australian Education Union has called for an overhaul of the NAPLAN testing regime.
The union's president, Angelo Gavrielatos, says researchers are looking into whether the testing should be done online to try to reduce pressure on students.
"The report today signals, let's have that re-examination," he said.
"Let's re-examine the purpose and administration because in its current form with the high stakes associated with it, it is being counter productive and indeed, damaging in many regards."
New South Wales state MP John Kaye called on the NSW Government to withdraw its support for publishing the results of the tests.
"NAPLAN was always designed as a diagnostic test to find those students who were struggling with basic skills," he said.
"Publishing the results was an add-on that the Gillard Government forced the states into. It really is time we reconsider that. The evidence is in. It's damaging the curriculum."