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

Lottie Twyford 16 December 2021 67
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.


READ ALSO: ACT kids well supported during COVID-19 pandemic, but more always needed: commissioner


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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67 Responses to NAPLAN: ACT’s fall from grace continues amidst worrying national performance gaps
Courtenay Trinder Courtenay Trinder 6:50 am 20 Dec 21

For one thing ACT doesn't recognise dyslexia as a specific condition. My son was measured dumb as a puddle for NAPlan 1 because he couldn't read. Screw you NAPLAN!

tfx1 tfx1 11:51 am 19 Dec 21

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.

    bj_ACT bj_ACT 10:24 am 20 Dec 21

    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.

    tfx1 tfx1 1:55 pm 24 Dec 21

    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.

Alison Elliott Alison Elliott 10:34 pm 18 Dec 21

Because schools are too busy dealing with behaviour issues, taking time away from teaching/ learning.

    Peter Curtis Peter Curtis 5:08 pm 19 Dec 21

    Alison Elliott This is true to a point and it does depend on the demographic - social inequity and the consequences exist and pervades every aspect of society. Public schools are under-resourced and dealing with issues beyond the school gate needs more support.

Jen McGann Jen McGann 5:28 pm 18 Dec 21

Let's catch up with the idea that we should not rely on the results of a standardised test to reflect on our teaching. Focus on student interest, engagement, mental health and relationships. Over these last few years in particular we must do things a different way. We do not need to perform on highly on standardised assessments to be creative, independent and confident learners.

    Jodie McGuire Jodie McGuire 10:43 pm 18 Dec 21

    Jen McGann Sadly the sector appears to rely more and more on standardised assessments, performance, competition and now PBL (only goes to the behaviour level…well sorry, behaviour is communication and there is shame, guilt and exclusions happening based on this PBL approach).

    Peter Curtis Peter Curtis 5:15 pm 19 Dec 21

    PBL is no different to an animal/dog training behaviour program - founded on extrinsic rewards for performing in the manner expected. It has little to do with education or with learning to be a learner. It is essentially flawed but the system needs to be able to provide the evidence that it has a behaviour managment program in place.

    Jen McGann Jen McGann 7:09 pm 19 Dec 21

    Student behaviour difficulties are rising because there is an emphasis on what the teacher or school is doing for individuals when there needs to be a focus on what the school, community and parents are doing to improve student's well-being and behaviour. When there is no behaviour policy in place in a school it leads to the traditional methods of discipline being used, when PBL exists there is at least a unified posisitive approach to behaviour. However, after a unified approach is agreed upon, I do not think the PBL systems is then the best approach. The schooling system needs many changes that put students self recognition and ownership of their own behaviour and greater availability for support for parents, teachers and students.

Paul Mathews Paul Mathews 8:30 am 18 Dec 21

probably bc kids cant focus on homework bc of neighbour's. BARKING DOG eh Chris

Dilkera Dilkera 12:06 am 18 Dec 21

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,

kenbehrens kenbehrens 7:03 pm 17 Dec 21

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.

    Spiral Spiral 11:45 am 18 Dec 21

    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 Curtis Peter Curtis 5:36 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.

Corey Karl Corey Karl 6:06 pm 17 Dec 21

Yeah but you have a tram

bj_ACT bj_ACT 12:21 pm 17 Dec 21

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. .

Kaisee Melba Kaisee Melba 10:58 am 17 Dec 21

Perhaps the ACT needs to revisit the combined grades approach, and return to one class being taught the same material.

Spiral Spiral 10:36 am 17 Dec 21

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 Curtis Peter Curtis 4:40 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?

    Spiral Spiral 6:44 pm 19 Dec 21

    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.

Carole Ford Carole Ford 10:02 am 17 Dec 21

The ACT'S fall has very little to do with the ability and quality of our teachers, but mostly to do with how their workloads have ballooned and become impossible to manage without experiencing incredible stress and mental exhaustion. The system has deteriorated to the point where it needs to be overhauled. Funding needs to be increased to allow for full-time specialist teachers to operate within schools to assist special needs children in mainstream classes that struggle to thrive. Easing that pressure on teachers would go a long way in reducing the burden of responsibility.

Janine May Janine May 9:50 am 17 Dec 21

Have kids sat Naplan for the last 2 years? Mine were due to and didn’t.

    Jasper Roo Jasper Roo 7:47 pm 17 Dec 21

    NAPLAN was cancelled last year (and surprisingly the sun continued to rise and everyone was fine! 😝), but went ahead this year.

Addy Tee Addy Tee 9:44 am 17 Dec 21

I'd rather my child learns to think critically, not be coached for a standardised test. Testing should be to guide teachers in targeting their teaching.

Skye Jensen Skye Jensen 8:37 am 17 Dec 21

NAPLAN, and standardised testing in general, are not really anywhere near as good at measuring a student's level of knowledge and understanding as people think. And they certainly don't help many students actually learn anything

James Daniels James Daniels 12:02 am 17 Dec 21

I refuse to believe our teachers are worse than those interstate, and its proven that economic advantage is supposed to lift education outcomes so the only realistic conclusion is that there is something wrong with the management, administration and/or directives coming from the ACT education directorate and Yvette Berry is doing a great disservice to Canberra's children in refusing to acknowledge the big problem that's only getting worse under her leadership.

Isaac Williams Isaac Williams 10:43 pm 16 Dec 21

Go woke, go broke.

Jeremy Hanson Jeremy Hanson 10:25 pm 16 Dec 21

This is a link to the Canberra Liberals education strategy that outlines the current problems with our school system and provides a way forward. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QZkF7GD1Sh3K80SCycn5rho8mOvLjZUN/view

    Kriso Hadskini Kriso Hadskini 5:30 am 17 Dec 21

    Jeremy Hanson Does it involve less data and more wholistic teaching? It is the government obsession with data (makes non teachers salivate) that is killing education. My students learn when I am teaching in a whole experiential way that makes sense in their little lives. When curriculum is filled to the brim with bitsy crap that is surface then it does not stick. It is very simple, but you pollies just love to politicise education so no matter which of you get elected it will still remain a bureaucratic data driven nightmare. Hands off is the only answer.

    Sonja Mitrovic Sonja Mitrovic 11:57 am 17 Dec 21

    Jeremy Hanson since when do liberals care about schools unless they’re private and have chaplains instead of counsellors?

    Sam McEwan Sam McEwan 7:40 pm 17 Dec 21

    Jeremy Hanson the answer to sonjas question Jeremy is they don’t

    Alison Elliott Alison Elliott 10:32 pm 18 Dec 21

    It only discusses public schools. It should be comprehensive and include all private schools also. Why target public schools only

    Jeremy Hanson Jeremy Hanson 11:06 pm 18 Dec 21

    Alison Elliott the paper is focused on government schools because that’s where the vast bulk of ACT funding and responsibilities lie. I’m a very big supporter of government schools and my paper is a strategy to make them better 👍🏻

    Alyssa Maier Alyssa Maier 6:59 am 19 Dec 21

    Sonja Mitrovic what makes you think private schools don't have counsellors? Chaplains and counsellors are not mutually-exclusive.

    Sonja Mitrovic Sonja Mitrovic 11:05 am 19 Dec 21

    Alyssa Maier because many, not all, have chaplains instead of counsellors doll

    Peter Curtis Peter Curtis 4:56 pm 19 Dec 21

    Alyssa Maier non-government tax-payer subsidised schools can have chaplains. Public/state school in the ACT cannot have chaplains. ACT public schools have approx one psychologist to 500 to 700 students and are preoccupied with learning and needs assessments. There are no in-school personal counselling services in the primary sector, there are more provisions at the secondary level.

Beth Mansfield Beth Mansfield 9:59 pm 16 Dec 21

I'm going to refuse to give consent for my child to participate in naplan. I'm not having her going through such an unpedagogical ideology based piece of clap-trap. I don't care where she ranks in relation to her peers. I don't care where her school ranks. And I'd rather she wasn't conditioned to take exams from infancy.

    Kriso Hadskini Kriso Hadskini 5:31 am 17 Dec 21

    Beth Mansfield Good on you!

    Maddie Ten Maddie Ten 9:43 am 17 Dec 21

    Beth Mansfield Norway ranks highest in the world and does not attack it's students with stressful recitation

Vicky  Scipione Vicky Scipione 8:57 pm 16 Dec 21

Hurry up and change the literacy approach! We want our children to be able to read.

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