Monday, September 17, 2012

Nasty NAPLAN Results: What Should Parents Do Next?

Queensland Teachers' Union deputy general secr...
Queensland Teachers' Union deputy general secretary Graham Moloney after conference at Qld Industrial Relations Commission re NAPLAN tests, 100419 (Photo credit: David Jackmanson)
by Professor Anne Castles, Deputy Director, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University, The Conversation:

The latest NAPLAN results have arrived, and soon enough thousands of Australian parents will tear open the envelope containing their child’s NAPLAN results.

They will be faced with a series of graphs that look a bit like mercury thermometers, with the health of their child in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy represented by hovering black dots.

According to the results around 92% of Australian students are at or above national minimum standards. Their parents will be pleased to see their child’s dots sitting at the top of the thermometers, confirming that they are performing well. They can then relax and bask in the minutae of their son or daughter’s accomplishments.

But what about those parents that get a shock? What about those that see dots indicating that their child is performing below expectations for their year level in reading, and maybe even below the national minimum standard? What will these parents do?

Searching for answers

Most will probably get in touch with their child’s school. They will make an appointment with the classroom or learning support teacher. But many will also do some investigating of their own.

They might search the internet for: “How can I treat my child’s reading problem?” or “Is there a cure for reading difficulties?” And when they do, they will be bombarded with information and an enormous number of different reading treatment programs. All, of course, claim to be effective, at least for some children.

Many of the programs will explain how they are effective by using language that is heavy in scientific and technical terminology. Some may point to the “principles of neuroplasticity” that need to be understood in order to develop the “physical mechanism of learning”, while others claim to use computer science to “synchronise information and deliver it directly where it is needed”.

One program called the Irlen Method states that it “corrects reading problems that are a result of a processing problem called Irlen Syndrome … This type of reading problem is result of the brain’s inability to accurately understand and process visual information.”

Another called the DORE program states it “has found the key to improving cerebellum efficiency is through our unique exercise programme … designed to kick-start the cerebellum and train the brain to speed up and automate the information flow.”

Evidence base

Some of the treatment programs will be supported by solid scientific evidence, with their efficacy established by controlled clinical trials. However, given the cost and difficulty involved in carrying out such trials, these treatments will be in the minority.

Others will not necessarily have been subject to a controlled treatment study, but their methods will be based on sound science. They may be quite similar to other treatments that have been subject to controlled trials and, as such, there might be some cause for confidence in their methods.

But others will have no scientific credibility at all.

The problem is: how can parents, or indeed teachers tell the difference between programs that are credible or effective, and those that aren’t?

Even well-educated people will find this extremely difficult to assess. I find it difficult and I have been working in the field for many years! Aside from the technical language, many of the sites provide lists of scientific articles to support the claims they make for efficacy.

But only expert researchers are likely to have the background to assess whether these articles do in fact provide such support.

The average parent or teacher is left in a confused, frustrated muddle. I know because we receive calls from people like this to our research centre every week.

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