17 December 2021

NAPLAN warning bells should not go unheeded

| Ian Bushnell
Join the conversation
ACT Minister for Education Yvette Berry

ACT Minister for Education Yvette Berry is staunchly defending the Territory’s education system despite poor NAPLAN results. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

NAPLAN isn’t perfect, but its high time ACT Minister for Education Yvette Berry and directorate officials admit there is something not quite right about school performance in the ACT.

There are always caveats around standardised testing, and Ms Berry is right to argue it only captures student performance at one particular time, but the trends seem clear: standards are slipping and the disadvantage gap is growing.

When the ACT’s obvious socioeconomic edge is taken into account, performance is even worse.

A jurisdiction such as the ACT – probably the most highly educated and paid in the country – should be on top of the national ladder.

NAPLAN may not be the complete picture, but the data can be a useful guide and it suggests something is missing in the ACT’s classrooms.

READ ALSO NAPLAN: ACT’s fall from grace continues amid worrying national performance gaps

Ms Berry will argue that ACT public schools are already rolling out programs to boost literacy and numeracy, we have the best teachers in the country, and the ACT’s education strategy is on track.

A staunch defender of ACT public schools and its teachers, Ms Berry continues to have faith while the evidence piles up that too many kids are not learning to read, write and do their sums.

‘Back to basics’ is a glib catchphrase that suggests some sort of educational golden age so a return to 1950s chalk and talk is no answer.

But it does seem that rudimentary skills and how to teach them are lacking, or being overwhelmed by an emphasis on self-directed, inquiry-based learning, free expression and the development of critical thinking.

And for all the assignments – often set at too young an age to be useful and the bane of parents – there appears to be little instruction in how to write, structure or research them.

We still seem to be recovering from the abandonment of grammar, phonics and mathematical basics such as times tables and mental arithmetic, along with sequential learning, so students have to master a level before moving on to the next.

Some students just aren’t being given the tools to be successful, often in an environment that isn’t conducive to learning. Osmosis is no substitute for explicit teaching, and in some cases repetition and the development of a memory muscle is the only way to build a platform for complex learning later on.

We’re talking parts and figures of speech, sentence structure, spelling, times tables and formulae.

READ ALSO APS parental leave changes on way after review announced

Technology such as calculators and premature access to the internet may be compounding these issues, undermining learning and cluttering the landscape.

The ability to be self-directed and possessing critical thinking skills are important – it’s just that without foundation skills, students won’t be as successful as they could be and some will just fall away, convinced they are failures.

It also seems the developmental stages of childhood are being ignored, with too much choice being given to students lacking the maturity to understand it.

Most parents will recognise at least some of these aspects in their children’s school experiences, and the Canberra Liberals have also raised some in their policy document.

They should not be fobbed off, or be seen as attacks on teachers, but examined and responded to.

The ACT’s NAPLAN results are not disastrous, but the Education Directorate should interrogate the data and review the present mix of its Future of Education Strategy.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments

Many commentators are missing the point of NAPLAN. It’s a national moderation test for schools, to see how well schools in the ACT are teaching the national curriculum versus schools in any other state. And our results are ordinary. But improvement is very hard when our efforts are fractured across disputes and competition between schools and school systems, rather than concentrating on following the best precedents. And it’s also true this test only measures a — objective, easily tested — fraction of what students are learning.

Roberto Taglienti12:22 pm 21 Dec 21

If the education minister believes that her teachers are the best in the country that means by definition she’s blaming the kids…..parents of canberra your kids are the dumbest!!!

This is definitely a complex issue, but if we focus on the ACT, we are behind local private schools and other states in our literacy education practices. The Directorate is actively suppressing the introduction of synthetic phonics programs, because they believe that only whole language approaches are valid. This is even though the local Catholic system, and other Australian states, are providing the direct, targeted phonics instruction needed by many students. And old approaches are also favoured at UC, so new teachers usually don’t come into the system understanding the science of reading.

Just as an example, here is some information from NSW about their introduction of a science based phonics program to support students learning to read and write: https://www.educationstandards.nsw.edu.au/wps/portal/nesa/about/news/media-releases/media-release-detail/phonics-compulsory-for-every-student

Instead the ACT Minister refers to three initiatives, two of which are over a decade old and were certainly not recently introduced to address this issue. The only literacy program she refers to, “Early Literacy Practices”, saw every teacher required to sit through many hours of online lectures over the last two years under the “Early Years Literacy Initiative” banner. Unfortunately the EYLI introduced nothing new to address this decline, and was largely a rehash of Literacy Education 101 that most teachers had already been taught years ago.

I feel my daughter has suffered because of the whole language approach to teaching reading and a curriculum that didn’t spend enough time on mastering the basics.
We’ve just found out she has dyslexia and she is going into year 2, two years behind in her reading. If I had known that the school wasn’t using the best practice in teaching reading I wouldn’t have sent her there.
I feel like we have wasted time in kindy and year 1 with her difficulties also affecting her self-esteem.
We are lucky that we can afford outside interventions, if we couldn’t she’d be left to fall further and further behind.
The school’s curriculum races ahead each year not taking into account that a lot of students don’t have the basics of reading and writing to keep up.

Teachers are often not trained to recognise dyslexia or even know where to refer parents to for help, eg Brindabella Speech and Hearing.

It’s great that you have been able to get some external support, because you’re right, the whole language approach being largely mandated here in government schools is not a good fit for many students.

For any parents who have young children struggling to learn to read, ask the school if they are using a synthetic phonics program, and what specific interventions your child is receiving to help them.

How dare the author think the government has time to make meaningful and effective policy changes in this space.

They’re far too busy lecturing to the Federal Government and UN on what should happen to address climate change along with making sure sanitary products are free for all.

You know, focusing on the big issues that Canberrans care about most.

This article resonates with me. I am a frustrated parent of a 15 year old and we’ve decided to withdraw them from the ACT Public School system to start in a private school in 2022. It pains me to write that, because I am a strong advocate for public education and a member of my school’s board, but the ACT system has been failing my child and I have needed to act.

Top of my list of greivances is the unconstrained access to devices , in particular Chromebooks, and the very high level of reliance on them for learning and assessment. For motivated kids blessed with self-discipline, they’re a great adjunct to learning. But with Youtube videos, Dischord chats and games always a tab away, for how many kids is this a toxic distraction for which they are ill-equipped to manage?

My child’s spelling in Naplan was weak – afterall, you only need to write-click to clear-away those wriggly lines. They haven’t been taught maths properly, because the software structures and lays-out the process leading to solutions. Their hand-writing is like that of a 5 year old, because substantially all of their written work is done on a keyboard. I shudder to think how they’ll manage at university, or the workplace, when they will need to take notes (or handwrite an essay).

‘Average’ is just fine by the school system. So long as they get a ‘C’, that’s all that matters. The fact that individual kids may be capable of so much more doesn’t matter. There’s no accountability for not handing-in work and missing assignments. Kids at this school quickly identify the path of least resistance. Schools need to be empowered and resourced to take stronger measures to ensure individual learning outcomes are achieved.

Muphry’s Law: “… afterall, you only need to write-click to clear-away those wriggly lines.” I think you meant “right-click”. I was a frustrated parent 2 decades ago, I could see issues on the horizon but the teachers were advising that all was well.

Richie, I understand your frustration. Like you, I send my sons to private high school instead public school. It is better but I find that the difference is small for very high fees. In my son’s private school, the principal is obsessed with reputation, so the private fees are channelled to building funds and sports equipment, instead of quality teachers. Staff turnover (especially in maths and science) is high. Disciplinary issues are similar to public schools but some problem students “leave quietly” (a boy who stole school computers and my son’s ID left at year end, instead of suspension). The problem that I see is that teachers are busy with under-performing kids but average or top students are left on their own. There is no follow-up for mistakes made, so some students don’t improve.
In the college years, many top students undertake tuitions outside school hours so their results masked the poor teaching in schools. You don’t have to believe me…just google “tutorfinder” for maths, physics, chemistry and biology in ACT. The popular tutors cater to the students from top schools (Narrabundah, Radford, Grammar and Burgmann). Basically, the ACT results are propped up artificially by private tutoring but not acknowledged by the Minister of Education and principals (because it would imply their incompetence).

Yep, I did mean right-click … fun pick-up.

Interesting that you think that anybody still handwrites essays at university. I went to uni in the early 2000s and everything had to be typed.

I think this is a very good summary of the issues.

I’m certainly not against the idea of self directed learning and am a big fan of critical thinking,

But the students need to be proficient at the basics.

When you have kids in high school who can’t tell you what 7 times 8 is, or how many millilitres there are in a litre, or name the months of the year in order, and when these students are passing well, then it should be blindingly obvious to everyone that our education system is failing.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.