Richard Lamb is an assistant professor of science education measurement at Washington State University and the director of a unique classroom in which all the students and the teacher are ‘wired’ to a computer which actively records their brain functioning..
In one study, Lamb used the brain imaging of teachers and students to evaluate the cognitive difficulty of maths concepts in the Common Core State Standards for elementary mathematics (the US equivalent to NAPLAN).
In a preliminary test, 60 4th graders were scanned using a functional near-infrared (fNIR) spectroscope—which measures changes in blood-oxygen levels in the brain associated with thinking—while completing a 13-item math test aligned to the common-core math standards for their grade. The fNIR readings showed the questions rated as difficult were definitely mentally demanding, but they activated phonological systems in the brain (i.e., the part of the brain that used in reading), not those associated with processing maths operations. This suggests the problems were difficult because of the reading involved, not because of the numerical operations.
The take home message for parents and teachers from this research is how reading competency impacts on all aspects of learning, even mathematics. In addition, you would also need to question what is actually being tested in ‘high stakes testing’ such as NAPLAN. Are we testing maths competency or reading competency?