16 December 2021

NAPLAN: ACT's fall from grace continues amidst worrying national performance gaps

| Lottie Twyford
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School students

The ACT is on par with the rest of the country, but significant performance gaps remain for Indigenous students. Photo: File.

Once the best-performing jurisdiction in the country, the 2021 NAPLAN results have confirmed a continuing downward trend for ACT students’ numeracy and literacy skills compared with the national benchmark.

Worrying trends at a national level also point to a widening gap between students from advantaged backgrounds and those who are disadvantaged, while the stubborn performance gap remains between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Since 2016, when the ACT last topped the nation in reading, grammar and punctuation, the Territory’s results have slowly slipped backwards.

Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA’s) standardised testing covers 20 data sets – the subjects of Reading, Writing, Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation, and Numeracy for Year 3, Year 5, Year 7 and Year 9 students.

In the 2021 results, the ACT did not top a single category where unbiased data and results could be ensured, while in three-quarters of the data subsets, the ACT recorded a mean score that fell below the national benchmark.

For the most part, however, the ACT did not score the lowest and was instead somewhere in the middle of the pack.

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Opposition spokesperson for education Jeremy Hanson said relative to other demographically similar populations, ACT students have been chronically underperforming for years and the “latest NAPLAN results just highlight the problem”.

“Disappointingly, socially disadvantaged children, including Indigenous students, are again falling behind,” Mr Hanson said.

He’s called for an independent review of the education system since 2018.

An independent review by the Grattan Institute in 2018 found the ACT was actually the country’s worst performer when social and economic advantage was taken into account.

At a national level, yesterday’s (16 December) final 2021 NAPLAN report has shown the pandemic and a switch to remote learning amid lockdowns hasn’t yet impacted students’ literacy and numeracy skills.

However, early indications from the data show that the gap between high and low socio-educational groups does seem to be widening, ACARA CEO David de Carvalho said.

Students whose parents did not complete Year 12 were more likely to be those who fell behind the national average, the report showed.

Across the country, in Year 3 Literacy results, there’s already a two-years-and-four-months learning gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. By Year 9, this gap grows to five years and one month.

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Minister for Education Yvette Berry said this trend had not been recorded in the ACT, where “the equity gap for ACT public school students across all NAPLAN year levels for both reading and numeracy for students has closed slightly in 2021”.

However, she noted that the gap would need to narrow to have a positive effect on less-advantaged students.

Nationwide, significant performance gaps remain between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and those whose parents have a tertiary education compared with those who have not.

Ms Berry said several key programs are currently underway in ACT public schools, including programs such as the Early Literacy Practices, the Middle Years Mental Computation, and the Count Me In Too program.

Analysis of the 2021 results has also shown that the difference in achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students remains stubbornly large. The performance gap has remained stable since 2016, but there’s been little change since 2008.

The gap between students in rural areas and those in the city also continues to widen.

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Minister for Education Yvette Berry has repeatedly pushed for reform of the NAPLAN system which she said creates anxiety for students and teachers and can stigmatise lower-performing schools.

“I am especially concerned about NAPLAN reporting, which tends to lead to competition between jurisdictions and schools that is unhelpful and leads parents to see NAPLAN testing as a high stakes test, which it isn’t,” Ms Berry said.

Only last year, Ms Berry claimed the NAPLAN data made ACT students look as though they were underperforming when that was not actually the case.

The ACT, along with NSW, Victoria and Queensland, has previously commissioned an independent review into NAPLAN. The review made several recommendations, including that the test be conducted “as early as possible” in the school year, that it be changed to Year 10 from Year 9 and that a new STEM test be added.

“There are things we can to do improve on NAPLAN,” Ms Berry said.

ACARA has yet to respond to the findings of this report.

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It’s not surprising. Last week, I had a 15min catch-up with my child’s teacher. I was surprised that the Year 3 public school teacher didn’t know when the test would be held this year. She wasn’t even sure whether the test would hold “because it hasn’t been held for some years”. I told her that the test was only cancelled in 2020.

The deterioration in educational standards and student intelligence is not just an ACT or Australian phenomenon. It has been found empirically in many countries since the start of this century. 2 hypotheses have been put forward to explain the deterioration, firstly the education standards and teaching have deteriorated around most of the developed world and secondly it also coincides with the major uptake of the electronics communication revolution. Recent studies from Scandinavian countries have made the point that their educational teaching standards have not changed but they are still seeing deterioration in the quality of their students. The phenomenon is called the “Reverse Flynn Effect” after the late James Flynn who documented the improvement in intelligence and capabilities of students in the previous century.

That’s interesting information I’d like to know more. First question, does this explain why ACT has slipped so far in ‘comparison’ to the rest of Australia and the world?

If the rest of the world is declining, why is Canberra declining twice as fast as the others.

Why have a number of kids I know suddenly performed much better at a new school when they leave their Tuggeranong public school. Nothing else has changed for them. Same address, same parents, same interests, etc.

I cannot provide an answer on the specifics of deteriorating education standards in jurisdictions around the world. The only methodology that I can think of that might help provide information is to do multiple empirical experiments such as classifying student classes by categories such as family structure, parental job classifications, ethnicity and religion. The next set of empirical requirements would be teacher standards, teacher methods, school discipline, class size. This is just my off the top of the head set of criteria for finding empirical outcomes and then determining what are the best forms of education for students in today’s world.

This downward trend has become apparent since the government moved from community schools to super schools. Nothing replaces a small school where children and their families are well known to teachers and provided with an individualised approach to learning and close monitoring of progress. Also stop expecting teachers to take up the slack in areas where parents have abdicated responsibility, eg. ethics, civics,

I no longer have kids in the education system, so my comments may not be current, however…

Our children’s school discouraged the less academic kids from participating in testing. It was important for the school to do well. If the less academic kids aren’t sitting the tests, just how bad are things?

Schooling seems to be more about social agendas, than the older style learning: things like Maths, Reading, Grammar and so on.

When the Government supports school kids attending climate protest rallies during school hours, you know that education isn’t their prime focus.

Yes, I have seen schools “suggesting” that some lower performing kids don’t attend school on NAPLAN days.

And of course an emphasis on “critical thinking” which has about as much in common with critical thinking as most countries with “Democratic” in their name have in common with democracy.

Critical thinking in schools is mostly code for saying that the kids are taught to blindly think along the political lines of their educators and to be critical of any opinions and facts which don’t align with those views.

Peter Curtis5:36 pm 19 Dec 21

Really, there were no social agendas in the past – when schooling went to Year-8 and maybe Year-10 – social inequality hasn’t changed for the better, that is we are further away from eliminating it. When do you think the Golden Age of education was and should we aim for that? There is a massive cultural revolution going on around you and you expect nothing to change from the days when you were at school. I went to school from 1962 to 74 and a non-government school, we had untrained/barely qualified teachers – a mish-mash of a syllabus, and the attitude was if you could work out what the teacher was on about you did well otherwise so be it. And all the non-teacher experts want to improve the system when the recommendation is going to some sentimental memory of the past, be it good or bad.

Any government who closed public schools and replaced them with poorly resourced and poorly performing Super schools, has no right to claim ACT education is doing well.

Tuggeranong has seen declining public education performances for a decade and the Education Minister has completely ignored it. Now these issues are slowly expanding right across Canberra.

Education, Health and Buses aren’t as interesting to this government as apartment development and new shiny policies that interest Mr Barr or Rattenbury. .

According to her teacher and her end of year reports, my high school (in year 9) daughter is doing well at maths.

However I have noticed that her basic maths skills are pathetic.

I see her doing algebra or questions on the area of a shape and struggle because she can’t confidently and rapidly give the answer to 7 X 8. Or tell me the formula for the area of a circle.

And remember, she is not a student who is failing. She is getting good marks.

There is something seriously wrong with our education system.

Peter Curtis4:40 pm 19 Dec 21

By Year-9 i should expect that she could teacher herself the multiplication tables. While it is easy to repeat a formula, but what does it mean?

I completely agree that at year 9 level she should be (and is) doing much more complex things.

However, time and time again I see her finding her work harder and slower than it should be because at year 9 she does not have important basic maths skills I had mastered in year 5 (if not earlier).

This last year of so has been very informative.

I have not seen any maths topic where she is more advanced than where I was, and many where she is far behind.

And again we see the real reason for the opposition to NAPLAN.

It shows our politicians and educators have been lying to us.

The education system in Canberra is not as good as they like to tell us and I’
is getting worse.

They don’t like a system that exposes their dirty little secret!

Peter Curtis4:47 pm 19 Dec 21

By Year-9 i should expect that she could teacher herself the multiplication tables. While it is easy to repeat a formula, but what does it mean?
No public education system is as good as could be due to the massive inequalities in resourcing them.

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