Extensive Private Tutoring Corrupts the Reliability of School Comparisons on My School

Private tutoring is the hidden face of Australian education. It is so extensive that it has been called a “shadow education system”. The My School website has given it a huge boost.

Tutoring colleges have reported a huge surge in tutoring in recent weeks in the lead up to the national literacy and numeracy tests (NAPLAN) to be held next week. There is a huge and growing industry in providing cramming courses for students preparing of the national tests.

The chief executive of the Australian Tutoring Association says that the NAPLAN tests have opened up a commercial opportunity, with publishers selling books with practice questions for the tests Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 2010]. The Daily Telegraph has reported that children as young as eight years are being coached by private tutors to pass the tests that form the basis of performance ratings on My School [31 March 2010].

A recent study carried out at the University of Canberra shows that extensive use is made of private tutoring for school-aged children in Australia. Expenditure on private tutoring is increasing as a proportion of total household expenditure on children’s education.

The study also shows that private tutoring tends to be used more by higher income families. The wealthiest households (those in the top 20 per cent of the income distribution) spend double the amount of an average household on private tutoring.

Widespread and increasing use of private tutoring has significant implications for the reliability of so-called “like school” comparisons of school results on the My School website.

It means that schools with the same measured socio-economic status rating according to the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ISCEA) may have different proportions of students engaged in private tutoring.

It may also be a factor influencing comparisons of government and private schools with the same ISCEA value. Higher income families can better afford private tutoring for their children A private school may achieve higher results than a government school simply because a larger proportion of its families use private tutoring.

In addition, changes in school results from one year to the next may be influenced by changes in the proportion of families who use private tutoring. If a higher proportion of families engage private tutoring in any one year, a school will receive a boost to its measured performance compared to another ‘like school’ even though there was no change in teaching effectiveness during the year.

This is more cause to question Julia Gillard’s claim that “like school” comparisons on My School are robust and reliable.

Trevor Cobbold

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