The NAPLAN writing task will be overhauled to give students more choice in what they write about and different questions may be asked of primary and high-school students after widespread criticism that this year's question was too confusing for many students.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which runs NAPLAN, said it had already raised the issue with the states and territories and had suggested options such as varying the questions, so that some schools would be asked to write a persuasive piece and others a narrative.
ACARA will also investigate other options, such as making the questions more age appropriate and giving students a choice of questions rather than a single prompt.
Students across all years scored lower in writing this year, compared to 2011, and in NSW there has been a "substantial increase" in the number of students who will receive zero for the writing component of the national literacy and numeracy tests.
There has been criticism that the question – "Which law or rule would you make better in your view?" – was too difficult for younger primary school students and also suggestions that teachers prepared students to write a narrative piece but they were thrown when the question required persuasive writing.
This year for the first time ACARA did not reveal which style of writing would be tested.
A former NSW Department of Education primary school assistant principal, Ann-Marie Kennedy, said she was shocked when she saw this year's writing question and felt that asking children as young as eight to critically examine rules and laws was inappropriate.
She said one of her grandchildren, Charlie, who is in a year 3 gifted and talented class in Port Macquarie, will be likely to score zero for his writing test because he did not attempt the question. He may scrape in with a band one – the lowest possible mark – because he wrote his name on the test paper.
Mrs Kennedy said Charlie told his parents: "When I thought about all the rules I know I thought that they are really good ones. So I didn’t have anything to say about it.''
"When you have children being brought up in law-abiding families, where they are told that rules are important, to ask this is ludicrous," Mrs Kennedy said.
An English teacher from an independent school on the mid-north coast said there were at least six year 3 students at her school who were "in tears" when they saw the writing question and did not attempt the task, while several year 5 students also found the question too challenging.
"When I saw the question, my heart fell out of my mouth, not just for my year 5 students but also my own kids doing NAPLAN," the teacher said.
It is not the first time the writing question has flummoxed students. Two years ago, some year 9 boys were left confused over a question about cooking.
In 2012, the prompt for the writing task was "everyone should learn to cook". A spokeswoman for ACARA said the complaint at that time was not only about the task but that the illustrations that accompanied the task were "cartoonish and a lot like those in little kids' books".
"For that reason we haven’t provided illustrations to support subsequent questions," the spokeswoman said.
NSW Primary Principals' Association president Geoff Scott said NAPLAN remained a "snapshot" in time and the latest criticisms showed that NAPLAN "had its limitations".