The authors of a new study on NAPLAN have called for a public inquiry into the continued underperformance of ACT schools, both government and non-government, in the national assessment test.
The ANU School of Law’s Professor Andrew Macintosh and Debra Wilkinson found that when compared with schools of similar socio-economic background in other jurisdictions, there was systemic underperformance in government primary and high schools in NAPLAN over the period 2012-2016, particularly at the high school level in writing and numeracy.
They found there was also reasonably widespread underperformance in non-government schools, mostly in high schools and in numeracy and to a lesser extent, writing.
It has been argued for many years that ACT school performance was being overestimated because it was not being compared with like schools elsewhere, including an Auditor-General’s report last year that found the majority of government schools’ NAPLAN results were lower than similar schools in Australia, particularly in low socio-economic schools.
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The ANU study compared three groups of ACT schools with schools of a similar socio-economic profile using data from the Myschool website.
It found the underperformance was relatively consistent across low, middle and high socio-economic schools; and the performance of government schools did not show any signs of improvement, with, if anything, a slight deterioration in numeracy.
Among primary non-government schools, there was a consistent lag behind comparable school results that warranted further investigation, while there was a significant underperformance in numeracy and writing in a substantial number of high schools throughout the study period.
For both government and non-government schools, high school numeracy and writing was of the greatest concern, with reading performance notably better than these subjects.
“Across the ACT school sector, there was an alarming number of schools where the students were, on average, more than 6 months behind the levels of learning of students in other comparable schools. The underperformance was most pronounced in government schools but there was also a material issue at non-government schools,” the study found.
The authors could not conclusively say what the causes of this underperformance was but one theory is a lack of a teacher-led or direct instruction approach to learning, and they called for a trial of evidence-based alternative teaching methods as promised by Labor at the 2016 election.
They argue that NAPLAN is a powerful tool for identifying differences in the academic performance of comparable schools and can also help in diagnosing and finding solutions to problems, and tracking the impacts of teaching and policy interventions.
It should not be scrapped, as advocated by Education Minister Yvette Berry. Instead, the Government should investigate ways it can better use NAPLAN data to improve student outcomes, the report said.
Professor Macintosh said there could be more benign reasons for the underperformance but the data suggested otherwise.
“We genuinely need an inquiry because we need more data to see what’s going on in schools to explore some of these issues,” he said.
Dr Macintosh said problem-based and inquiry-based learning was very strong in the ACT and more work needed to be done to see if this approach was part of the problem.
He said NAPLAN provided a ready-made platform to trial alternative teaching models and to evaluate their efficacy cheaply.
“I think the parents of the ACT deserve an explanation, as do the students,” he said.
If the Government did not take up the recommendations, he hoped at least that the non-Government sector would.
A Government inquiry is unlikely with the ACT Education Directorate insisting the ACT remains the highest, or equal highest performer in the vast majority of assessments, including NAPLAN.
It said the ACT would in the next few months lead work on a national review of what it called the unintended consequences of Australia’s NAPLAN testing and reporting regime, at Ms Berry’s suggestion.
As well, the 2018 Budget included $9.2 million in funding for early initiatives arising from the ACT Future of Education Strategy including research, review and implementation of contemporary, evidence-based pedagogies and alternative teaching methods.
Opposition education spokesperson Elizabeth Lee said the ANU study showed the Labor Government was failing Canberra students,
“The report confirms concerns about academic performance previously raised by the Auditor-General but ignored by the Government,” Ms Lee said.
“It is evident that there is only one reason why Education Minister Yvette Berry wants to do away with NAPLAN, and that’s because it is a damning indictment of her own Government’s performance.
“Instead of seeking to get to the heart of what we can do to achieve excellence in our schools, the Education Minister has disgraced herself by campaigning on a national scale to discredit NAPLAN.”
She said Ms Berry had announced the Government’s education strategy with great fanfare, but had failed to address the significant issues of underperformance in our schools or what the Government will do about it.
“A world-class education system should be teacher-led, student-focused. Our schools should teach the fundamentals of literacy and numeracy; equip our children with the skills for the future; and support each student to reach their fullest potential in the pursuit of excellence,” Ms Lee said.