Education Minister Yvette Berry has insisted that ACT students continue to perform well despite the preliminary NAPLAN results showing the Territory going backwards, if only marginally, on most 2018 results, with writing across Years 5, 7 and 9 falling behind over the long term.
But the Canberra Liberals have called for a holistic review of education in the ACT, saying that, considering the investment in the Territory’s schools, the outcomes continue to disappoint.
The standardised testing results issued by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority cover reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation and numeracy across Years 3, 5, 7, and 9, and while the ACT continues to compare well against other jurisdictions there are concerns this year with Year 9 reading down from 97 per cent at or above the national minimum standard to 93.4, Year 9 numeracy (97.4 to 95.5), and Year 7 numeracy (97.4 to 94.9).
Despite Years 5, 7, and 9 writing improving on the 2018 figures, even topping the nation for Year 9, the results when compared with the 2011 baseline scores show falling standards.
But there were improvements over the long term on the 2008 baseline comparing in Years 3 and 5 reading and Year 5 numeracy.
NSW and Victoria dominated the top places, but the ACT was highest or equal highest in Year 5 reading and grammar and punctuation, Year 7 spelling, grammar and punctuation and reading, and Year 9 writing and grammar and punctuation.
ACT school performance has come under increasing scrutiny with several studies claiming that when social and economic advantage was taken into account the Territory was underperforming.
The Grattan Institute’s Measuring student progress: A state-by-state report card last year found that the ACT was the worst performer when social and economic advantage was taken into account.
It said students in the ACT made two to three months less progress than the national average in both primary school (between Year 3 and Year 5) and secondary school (between Year 7 and Year 9), and the results should be a wake-up call to the Territory.
It urged policymakers to examine areas such as school autonomy, use of student data, teaching and school leadership practices to find out why the ACT is falling behind.
The results echo three other reports – Stephen Lamb (2017) for the ACT Education Directorate, the ACT Auditor-General (2017) and the ANU’s Andrew Macintosh and Deb Wilkinson (2018).
But Ms Berry has been a staunch defender of the ACT education system and has repeatedly questioned the value of NAPLAN.
She said today (28 August) that there was more to measuring the quality of school education than NAPLAN and it should not be used to rank and compare individuals and schools.
“NAPLAN testing provides a point-in-time snapshot of student progress and is one of many tools used by schools and learning professionals to assess student progress,” Ms Berry said.
She said it was more important that ACT school leavers were showing great life outcomes by going on to further studies or to start their careers.
“Earlier this year, I released the 2018 Post School Destinations and Pathways report that showed 93 per cent of young people who graduated in 2017 were employed or undertaking further study in 2018, or both,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Minister said that while the results again show a good outcome for the ACT, there were some areas that needed improvement.
“That’s why the ACT Government has been investing in teachers and school leaders to make sure they have what they need to support the learning of students, as well as the work on early years literacy and equity,” the spokesperson said.
Improvements in NAPLAN performance in other Australian states and territories had brought some jurisdictions closer to the ACT’s historic performance.
“While we know that ACT students perform well when compared to other states and territories, we’re still focused on improvement. We’re committed to continuing to improve the quality of the education our students receive and providing pathways and opportunities for our students.”
One of the Education Directorate’s performance indicators related to NAPLAN was greater equity in learning outcomes, and progress against that indicator was reported in the Directorate’s annual reports.
Acting Opposition education spokesperson Andrew Wall said the data painted an alarming picture and would only be worse when the final results were released later in the year when schools can be compared with like schools on a socio-economic basis.
He said the ACT should not compare itself to states like NSW which had stark differences between city and country.
“The ACT is a metropolitan jurisdiction in its entirety so to say that were performing better than other states on the surface is correct but when the data is released later in the year and a like comparison is done the ACT has historically performed worse than other metropolitan centres,” Mr Wall said.
Educational standards were declining under Labor and more needed to be done, such as a focus on the basics and ensuring a safe learning and working environment in the classroom.
“In the majority of areas we are no better off than when NAPLAN was first introduced in 2008,” Mr Wall said. “Why are we not seeing the improvements that other jurisdictions are?
“Where is the funding going and why aren’t we seeing an improvement in outcomes that parents would expect to see?”
Mr Wall said NAPLAN was not the problem, saying the Minister’s ideological bent against standardised testing was a travesty.
But Ms Berry is not alone in criticising NAPLAN, with NSW, Victoria and Queensland reviewing the tests and the Australian Education Union saying problems associated with the switch to online testing had compromised the results.
Nationally, Year 7 and 9 students slid backwards in writing and Year 9 students’ scores were flat across the assessment categories.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said there was room to improve, particularly in the high school years, and backed NAPLAN and the move to online testing.
About half the number of students sat NAPLAN online in 2019, and work continued to transition to full online delivery by 2021.
Across the ACT, 98 per cent of schools and more than 99 per cent of students participated in NAPLAN, undertaking the online test.
Parents can expect to receive their child’s NAPLAN report in the coming weeks.