Is the ACT School System Underperforming?

The following is a short presentation to the Progressive Canberra Summit held at the National Gallery of Australia on Saturday, 14 November. It uses results from the OECD’s Programme of International Assessments (PISA) for 15 year-old students conducted every three years to assess the performance of the ACT school system. The latest results are for 2012.

ACT results are statistically similar to some other states

The ACT has amongst the highest results for 15 year-old students in reading, mathematics and science in Australia, but they are not actually the highest as many claim. When account is taken of the margin of error, or band of statistical uncertainty, of the results, the ACT results are statistically similar to Victoria and WA in reading and similar to NSW and WA in mathematics and science. [see Chart 1: the scores in bold are statistically similar]

The ACT had larger declines in results than many states

The ACT had larger declines in reading, mathematics and science than many states and were much larger than the average for Australia. The declines in the ACT for reading and mathematics were equivalent to nearly one year of learning while the decline in science is equivalent to about half a year. [Chart 2]

The ACT has high achievement gaps

The ACT has amongst the highest achievement gaps between students at the 5th and 95th percentiles in Australia. The gaps in the ACT amount to about 9-10 years of learning [Chart 3].

Achievement gaps have increased since 2006

The achievement gaps have increased in the ACT since 2006. The increase in the reading gap was by far the largest in Australia. The increases in the mathematics and science gaps were amongst the largest in Australia. The increase in reading gap is equivalent to about one year of learning, slightly less than a year in mathematics and about one-third of a year in science. [Chart 4]

Large achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students

The PISA results show that the relationship between socio-economic background of students and achievement in the ACT is the strongest in Australia except for the NT. In technical terms, the socio-economic gradient is larger in the ACT than in any other state, except NT. This has been the case since 2006 when PISA began reporting on socio-economic gradients.

The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in 2012 was equivalent to nearly three years of schooling. If anything, the gap has increased since 2006.

The PISA results also show that the results of low SES students in the ACT are lower than those for similar students in many states and have gotten worse since 2006:

  • PISA 2006: ACT low SES students similar to Vic, NSW & Qld; above others
  • PISA 2009: ACT low SES students below all states except Tas & NT
  • PISA 2012:ACT low SES students below all states except Tas & NT

The 2009 PISA report was damning of the ACT’s equity performance:

Surprisingly….low socioeconomic students in the Australian Capital Territory are not particularly well served by their education system, with average scores for these students only just above those for Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and between 19 and 24 score points lower than students of the same socioeconomic level in the other five states. [p. 282]

Nothing has changed since to alter this verdict.

The ACT has several advantages over other states

The ACT has several advantages over the other states in terms of background factors that influence student outcomes: The ACT has less extreme levels of disadvantage than other states;

  • The ACT has no remote area students while other states have significant numbers;
  • The ACT has a lower percentage of Indigenous students than other states;
  • Average income levels are higher in the ACT than other states;
  • A much higher proportion of ACT adults have high education levels than other states;
  • The average SES of students and schools in the ACT is much higher than in other states.

Funding per student is also much higher in the ACT than elsewhere, except for WA and the NT, although this is partly due to lack of economies of scale in a small system and a higher proportion of Year 11 & 12 students than other states and who are more costly than other Year levels.

The verdict of the 2012 PISA report is damning of the ACT performance:

Somewhat surprisingly (given the Australian Capital Territory’s overall socioeconomic background), socioeconomically average schools in the Australian Capital Territory performed at about the same level as similar schools in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania; while students in socioeconomically average and advantaged schools in the Australian Capital Territory performed at a lower level than students in similar schools in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. [p.286]

In contrast to the ACT’s performance, the PISA report found that WA with similar per student funding is performing very well. Students in socio-economically disadvantaged schools and socio-economically average schools in WA performed much better than in similar schools elsewhere in Australia. In addition, students in socio-economically advantaged schools also performed better than in similar schools elsewhere except NSW which had a similar performance.

Future directions

The evidence from PISA shows that while the ACT school system achieves high results it is a low equity system. It has failed disadvantaged students. The achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students are large and do not appear to have diminished over the last decade.

The evidence also suggests that while the ACT is a high performing system by national standards, it should be performing better than it is. However, it is difficult to be conclusive about this without further investigation.

Just how long is it going to take to address the poor equity performance. Labor has been in power in the ACT for nearly 15 years and has made no impression on reducing inequity in education. Its performance on equity in education has been abysmal and shameful. It has been an abject failure in reducing inequity in education.

Practice has not matched the Government’s rhetoric. The ACT is yet to introduce a needs-based funding scheme some 2½ years after it signed up to the Gonski funding plan in contrast to the prompt implementation of a needs-based funding system in NSW which is already showing benefits.

The objective fact is that reducing inequity in education has not been a priority. Instead, each year the NAPLAN or PISA results are published we get an orgy of self-congratulation which serves to obscure the ACT’s poor performance in serving the needs of disadvantaged children.

This has to change. The ACT has to get out of its complacency about inequity in education. We must do better. The fundamental priority should be to reduce the achievement gaps between rich and poor. Not only is it a social imperative to reduce inequality in the ACT, but it is also an economic imperative. An underperforming education system means an underperforming economy.

Improving education outcomes, especially for disadvantaged students, will increase workforce participation and skills and lift productivity. It will also increase taxation revenue and reduce government expenditure on health care, crime and welfare.

Future directions:

  • Make reducing inequity the policy priority – reduce the gap between rich & poor;
  • Independent public inquiry on how to improve outcomes;
  • Increase funding for low SES and other disadvantaged students;
  • More teachers & support staff trained to meet needs of disadvantaged students;
  • Implement education & support programs proven to meet the needs of disadvantaged students.

Trevor Cobbold

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