Big Increase in Students Withdrawn from NAPLAN Tests

Thursday November 22, 2012

An increasing number of parents are withdrawing their children from the NAPLAN tests. There has been a four- to five-fold increase across Australia since 2008 in the percentage of children withdrawn from the numeracy tests. Withdrawals have increased in all Year levels tested and across all states and territories, with the largest increases in the ACT, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

It is not clear whether the increase is due to increasing parent concerns about NAPLAN, increasing rorting of school results or a combination of factors. Certainly, more and more parents are becoming aware that NAPLAN is not compulsory despite the efforts of education authorities to suggest they are mandatory. Certainly, schools are under tremendous pressure to improve their results and there is anecdotal evidence of schools encouraging parents of lower achieving students to withdraw them from the tests or keep them home on test days.

Although the percentages of students withdrawn are still small, the rapid growth poses a threat to the reliability of NAPLAN results for inter-school comparisons, inter-jurisdictional comparisons and trends in indicators of student achievement. This threat has been highlighted by the COAG Reform Council.

In the ACT, the percentage of Year 3 students withdrawn from the numeracy tests increased from 0.8% in 2008 to 4% in 2012 [Chart 1]. In South Australia, the percentage withdrawn increased from 0.6% to 3.3%; in Queensland it increased from 0.3% to 2.4% and in Victoria from 0.1% to 2.4%. For Australia, it has increased from 0.5% to 1.9% – a four-fold increase. The smallest increase was in NSW where the percentage withdrawn increased from 0.8% to 1%.

There was also a big increase in Year 9 students withdrawn. The percentage withdrawn from the Year 9 numeracy test across Australia increased from 0.3% to 1.4% – a five-fold increase [Chart 2]. In the ACT, it increased from 0.3% to 2.1%; in South Australia from 0.2% to 2.8%; in Queensland from 0.5% to 2.8%; and in Victoria from 0.1% to 1.3%. The increase in NSW was negligible – from 0.4% to 0.5%.

There are significant differences between the states and territories in the percentage of Year 3 students withdrawn from NAPLAN, ranging from 4% in the ACT to 1% in NSW. The ACT and South Australia (3.3%) had the highest percentages of students withdrawn from the Year 3 numeracy tests in 2012 while NSW, Tasmania (1.3%) and Western Australia (1.3%) had the lowest percentages withdrawn.

State/territory differences at the Year 9 level are smaller than in Year 3. Queensland and South Australia had the highest percentages of Year 9 students withdrawn – 2.8% and 2.3% respectively. NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia had only a very small percentage withdrawn – 0.5% to 0.7%.

The increase in students withdrawn accounts for a small, but significant declining trend in the percentage of students sitting the NAPLAN tests since 2008. The percentage present for the Year 3 numeracy tests across Australia fell from 94.6% in 2008 to 93.1% in 2012 and from 91.8% to 89.8% in Year 9 [Charts 3 &4].

In contrast to the trend in students withdrawn from NAPLAN there has been little change in the percentage of students absent on test days and exempt students since 2008.

The percentage of students exempt from the tests shows little change. In Year 3 numeracy, it increased from 1.7% to 1.9% for Australia and from 1.1% to 1.6% in Year 9 [Charts 5 & 6]. The biggest increases were in NSW where the percentage of Year 3 exempt students increased from 0.9% to 1.7% and from 0.5% to 1.3% in Year 9.

There was also little change in the percentage of students absent on test day. In Year 3 numeracy, the percentage absent for Australia declined slightly from 3.3% in 2008 to 3.1% in 2012 while it increased slightly in Year 9 from 6.8% to 7.2% [Charts 7 & 8]. Absent students comprise the large proportion of students not sitting the NAPLAN tests. For example, 7.2% of Year 9 students in Australia were absent from the numeracy test in 2012 while 1.4% were withdrawn and 1.6% were exempt.

In 2012, 9% of Year 9 students in Australia were either withdrawn or absent, with a range from 7% in NSW to 11% in Tasmania and 17% in the NT. Five per cent of Year 3 students in Australia were either withdrawn or absent, ranging from 3% in NSW to 7% in the ACT and South Australia and 14% in the NT.

There is concern in official circles about decreasing participation in NAPLAN. Last year, the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs commissioned work on participation rates by a strategic policy working group with the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). The report of this group should be completed by the end of 2012.

The reason officials are becoming concerned about the trend is that increasing numbers of students being withdrawn or absent from NAPLAN will affect the reliability of the results (exempt students are included in the NAPLAN results by being deemed to be below minimum national standards). Changes in participation rates could affect the results of individual schools, sub-groups of students such as Indigenous and low socio-economic status students and state/territory results as well as trends over time.

In its report on education performance in 2010, the COAG Reform Council emphasised the importance of high participation in NAPLAN for the reliability of results. It said:

In order to accurately report literacy and numeracy achievement, it is important that as many students as possible sit the NAPLAN tests. Small differences in participation may affect literacy and numeracy achievement because the ability of students who do not participate is likely to differ from students who do. [p. 22]

The impact on individual school results will depend on the background of the students who are withdrawn or absent. The withdrawal of lower achieving students will increase a school’s average result. As more students are withdrawn over time a school’s results will be artificially boosted.

Research recently published by the COAG Reform Council shows that non-participants in NAPLAN tend to be lower scoring students. ACARA uses statistical imputation techniques to estimate test scores for absent and withdrawn students to reduce bias in state-wide comparisons of results. The COAG Reform Council research drew on this data to show that students who sat for NAPLAN have higher mean test scores than those of withdrawn and absent students. In NSW, the difference between Present and Absent student means in numeracy in 2011 was 20 points in Year 3 and 39 points for Year 9. In Victoria, the differences were 13 points for Year 3 and 24 points for Year 9. The Year 9 differences are significant, being equivalent to nearly two years of learning in NSW and one year in Victoria. The differences between Present and Withdrawn students were much smaller with negligible differences in Year 3 and 15 points in Year 9 in both NSW and Victoria, the latter difference is equivalent to about six months of learning.

As participation declines, the reliability of the average scores of individual schools will also decrease particularly in small schools where the statistical uncertainty or error band around the average score is relatively large because of the small numbers of students sitting the tests. This increases the unreliability of school rankings and league tables as a guide to school quality.

There are also implications for state-wide comparisons and trends. Lower participation rates mean that more and more test scores are imputed by ACARA and this is not as accurate as having students participate in the tests. If a state or territory has a low level of participation then more scores in that jurisdiction will be imputed and this could bias inter-jurisdictional comparisons and trends.

The research commissioned by the COAG Reform Council recommended that further work should be done on examining the impact of non-participation in NAPLAN on trends in achievement and the comparability of results across jurisdictions. It found that variability in participation rates may have “a substantially important impact” on jurisdictional comparisons of NAPLAN results and that their impact on achievement trends is “potentially of concern” [p. 15]. It also said that examination of the method of imputing test scores is warranted because it is statistically complex and the impact that it may or may not have on the indicators is not immediately clear.

To summarise, data on participation rates in NAPLAN clearly shows that parents are increasingly exercising their right to withdraw children from the tests and a significant proportion of students are absent on test day, especially secondary students. While the absolute percentages of students withdrawn or absent are small, the likelihood is that it will continue to increase as more and more parents become aware of their rights. Declining participation will affect the reliability of published school results, inter-school comparisons and league tables; trends in national and state/territory achievement; and inter-jurisdictional comparisons of results. There is evidence of growing official concern about the reliability of NAPLAN results.

Trevor Cobbold

Charts on the Withdrawal of Students from NAPLAN Tests.pdf

Big Increase in Students Withdrawn from NAPLAN Tests.pdf

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Mapping School Autonomy in Australia: Part 3

This article is the third in a series on mapping the extent and differences in school autonomy across jurisdictions and school sectors in Australia. The aim is to provide an up to date information base for further discussion of issues around school autonomy.

The information provided below and in forthcoming articles is a first go at developing a comprehensive overview of school autonomy in Australia. Comment is invited with a view to correcting mistakes and omissions.

The “Contact Us” facility on this website can be used to directly provide comments and information or to contact SOS for another address to send information. Continue reading “Mapping School Autonomy in Australia: Part 3”

Finnish Lessons

Monday March 5, 2012

Viewers of the ABC’s Lateline last week had a special treat – an evidence-based discussion of education policy. Finland’s director of education, Pasi Sahlberg, was interviewed on the success of his country in international student assessments. He said its success was due to a focus on equity in education:

….one of the keys of our good performance is that we have systematically focused on equity and equality in our education system, and not so much on excellence and achievement like many other countries have done…. equity is the one that is also bringing excellence – just like this, not only Finland, but also Canada and Korea, for example, are the same. So I think the systematic way of addressing those who are in special need and need more help is the key.

He contrasted the priority given to equity in Finland with other approaches which focus on parent choice as the way to improve overall student results. He said that education policy in Finland has always been to focus more on equity and equality in education rather than choice.

Trying to make sure that every single school is a good school in Finland, and all the schools have good teachers, so that this would minimise the need for parents to choose the school, and we are exactly in this situation today.

Sahlberg said that improving equity starts from equitable funding of schools. He said that Finland had been doing for 20 years what the Gonski report has just recommended for Australia.

Our schools are funded very close to what this report is recommending you to do. So we give schools a kind of a basic funding equally based on the number of students they have, and then we adjust the school budget based on the school’s need. For example, if there are more immigrant children or pupils coming from the single parent families, the schools normally receive more funding so that they can deal with these issues easily. So there are many similarities in what we are doing now to those recommendations in the Gonski Report.

Sahlberg also contrasted other aspects of Finland’s education policy with those given precedence in Australia and other countries. For example, Finland’s approach to school autonomy emphasises trusting teachers and providing scope to design their own curriculum and teaching to meet the needs of students rather than financial management.

I think the most important thing in this school autonomy in Finland is that all the schools are both responsible and also free to design their own curriculum as they wish, based on the quite loose national curriculum framework. So financing and managing the school is one thing, but I think the… using teachers’ knowledge and skills that we have in our system to design how they want teaching and learning to take place is the most important thing.

Sahlberg also criticised the publication of test data to hold schools and teachers accountable:

Anywhere where these types of things had put in place, teachers have started to focus more on teaching to the test, and curriculum has narrowed. If the test data is only collected through two or three subjects – like is often done measuring literacy and mathematics – this means that these subjects will become the most important things in a school. And the other thing is that these knowledge tests often measure only the things that can be measured and not, for example, problem solving or creativity to the extent that they should be, and this leads teachers and schools to focus on these things more than they could do otherwise.

He said that Finland has concentrated on building trust and responsibility rather than accountability to ensure a quality education for all. He pointed to co-operation and sharing as the important things in making sure that everybody will be able to improve and do things better.

He contrasted Finland’s approach with that of other countries such as the UK, the US and Australia which he said have been infected by the Global Educational Reform Movement, or GERM, based on ideas of competition, choice, accountability, and testing. He said that “….these GERM elements are actually opposite to what Finland has been doing”.

The GERM virus has badly infected education policy in Australia under the Howard and Rudd/Gillard Governments. They have put their faith in competition and choice in education against all evidence that it fails to improve student achievement. Rather, it has led to greater inequity and segregation in schooling. Sahlberg has provided a much needed antidote to this virus in his book on Finland’s education system called Finnish Lessons. Read it!

Trevor Cobbold

See more at Pasi Sahlberg’s website and blog.

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ACT Legislation Is A Model for Consultation on School Closures

Thursday June 30, 2011

The consultation on school closures by the Tasmanian Greens Minister for Education, Nick McKim, is a sham. It is restricted to only four weeks, which is not nearly enough time for school communities to prepare their case. The impact statements prepared by the Minister amount to a list of benefits of closing schools and fail to spell out the full effect on families and communities.

The Minister should follow the consultation process mapped out by his ACT Greens colleagues who amended the ACT Education Act in 2010 to ensure an independent and open consultation on the full impact of school closures.

The ACT Education Act provides for an independent consultation process on proposals to close or amalgamate schools. The consultation must take place over a period of at least six months.

An independent committee must be established to prepare an impact analysis which is to be used in the consultation process and to conduct the consultation. The committee consists of three people who will be selected after consultation with a standing committee of the ACT Legislative Assembly. The committee must report to the Minister on the consultation.

This provision takes control of the consultation process away from the Minister and the Department of Education. It does not guarantee full independence in the process, but it is an improvement on past processes in the ACT where the Department of Education conducted the consultation at the bidding of the Minister of the day. The Minister now has less control over the process and school communities have more opportunity for their voice to be heard and taken into account.

The legislation provides for a detailed impact assessment of school closure and amalgamation proposals. The Minister is obliged to obtain a report which assesses the educational, economic, social and environmental impact of closing or amalgamating a school. This report is to be made available for the community consultation.

The legislation details a number of educational, economic, social and environmental factors which must be assessed in considering proposals to close or amalgamate schools which are much broader than those considered in the Towards 2020 plan.

The educational impacts include the range and depth of education programs, teaching resources and workloads, the social and learning environment for children; parent participation in school, the findings of research studies on school size and access to public education.

The economic impacts include savings and costs of closing a school for the Territory. This ensures that the wider costs such as increased bus transport costs and traffic and safety arrangements are also considered in future and not just the savings to the Education Department. Other economic factors to be considered include the financial impact on parents and local businesses.

The social impacts to be considered include demographic projections, the implications for low income, Indigenous and non-English speaking families, the safety of children walking or cycling to school, access to recreational and leisure facilities and community support networks.

The impact on environmental factors such as traffic congestion, air and noise pollution and green space adjacent to schools must also be taken into account.

The impact assessment report must also identify alternatives to closure or amalgamation for consideration in the consultation. This is a key change from past practice.

The ACT legislation also sets out a series of consultation requirements the Minister must comply with before making a decision to close or amalgamate a school. These provisions ensure that a future government cannot decide to close a school and then consult only on how it will be done as had occurred in the past.

In making a decision to close or amalgamate a school the Minister must now take specific account of the principles applying to education in general and to government schooling in the ACT Education Act. These include principles such as improving equity in education, ensuring reasonable access to public education and providing for partnerships in education.

The changes made to the ACT legislation last year reflect proposals made by Save Our Schools Canberra in its submission to the Legislative Assembly’s Education Committee inquiry on school closures in 2009 as well as other amendments it proposed. Save Our Schools worked closely with the ACT Greens in preparing the amendments.

It’s not too late for Minister McKim to have a proper consultation. He should take the ACT legislation as a model. He should extend the consultation period and publish a comprehensive impact statement for each school on the educational, economic and social impacts of closing them. He should appoint an independent committee to conduct the consultation and provide a report.

Trevor Cobbold

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Charter Schools Segregate Students by Race and Class

Thursday February 17, 2011

With the imminent release in Australia of the US education documentary “Waiting for Superman” which spruiks the role of charter schools in improving education outcomes, a study on charter schools published last month provides some sound research to assess the film.

The study found that charter schools segregate students by race and class in the United States. It found that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area.

In some regions, white students are overrepresented in charter schools while in other charter schools Black and Hispanic students have little exposure to white students. It also found that while data about the extent to which charter schools serve low-income and English Language Learners (ELL) is incomplete, it does suggest that a large proportion of charter schools do not enrol these students.

The study analysed the relationship between charter schools and segregation across 40 US states, the District of Columbia, and several dozen metropolitan areas with large enrolments of charter school students in 2007–08.

It also notes that extensive studies exploring the benefits of charter schools reveal no net academic gains for students as indicated by test scores. There is little known about the impact of charters on other achievement benchmarks like graduation rates or college matriculation, especially for racial and ethnic sub-groups.

Despite this, several new federal initiatives by the Obama Administration will likely result in an even more rapid expansion in the coming years than in the previous decade. The policies encouraging charter growth are built upon the belief that charter schools can contribute significantly to improving public schools. However, impact of charters on diversity in schools is almost never mentioned.

The study demonstrates that, while segregation for Blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings. Two out of every three Black charter school students attend intensely segregated schools in fifteen states across the country. In four of those states, 90% of Black students attend a hyper-segregated charter school. These figures are staggering, and remain considerably higher than in states with the highest Black segregation among regular public schools.

In addition, more than two-fifths of black charter school students attended schools where 99% of students were from under-represented minority backgrounds. That figure was, by far, the highest of any other racial group, and nearly three times as high as black students in traditional public schools.

While patterns of charter school segregation are most striking for Black students, other racial groups have also experienced greater isolation due to charters. In the West, where traditional public schools are the most racially diverse, and in some areas of the South, White students are over-enrolled in charter schools. In some cases, White segregation is higher in charter schools despite the fact that overall charter schools enrol fewer White students. These trends suggest that charter schools are contributing to “white flight” in the country’s two most racially diverse regions.

Latinos are under-enrolled in charter schools in some Western states, though they make up the largest share of students. Latino charter students are less segregated than Blacks overall; but in a dozen states, a majority of Latino charter students are in highly segregated minority schools, including states (like Arizona and Texas) educating large numbers of Latinos.

Charter schools are most likely to be established in urban locations, alongside traditional public school systems that educate a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students. More than half of charter schools located in cities enrolled at least 90% students of color in 2007–08, indicative of considerably higher segregation in urban charters even when compared to their regular, already isolated, public school counterparts.

The study says that there is a severe lack of some essential data on charters. It says that basic questions about the extent to which charter schools enrol low-income and ELL students cannot be conclusively answered.

One-quarter of charter schools did not report whether they enrolled students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRL), a common measure of students from low-income households. In a number of states, charter schools which did not report FRL data had more extensive concentration of White students than those that did. Estimates suggest that charter schools may under-enrol ELL students, but the data are inconclusive on this point.

All this suggests that low-income, minority, and English Language Learner students may not have access to some charter schools to the same extent as white and middle-class children do.

The study notes that US states often have weak civil rights and equity policies regarding charter school establishment and enrolment. Little state or federal direct action has been taken to change or correct racial isolation in charter schools despite growing evidence about this persistent and growing problem.

The Obama Administration, like its predecessors, is emphasizing choice and innovation, primarily in the form of new charter schools, as a way to improve the education of all students. The study states that if, as the Administration has proclaimed, education is the “civil rights issue of our time,” then federal leadership is needed to provide incentives for improving the integrative quality of charter schools, along with clear safeguards to prevent the resegregation of public schools via increasing charter school enrolment.

More than half a century after the US Supreme Court ruled that separate schooling was fundamentally unequal, a massive and accumulating body of social science evidence continues to affirm that unanimous decision. This new study shows that charter schools comprise a divisive and segregated sector of the already deeply stratified public school system.

Trevor Cobbold

Erica Frankenberg; Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Jia Wang 2011. Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 19 (1).

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Learning from Finland

Sunday January 2, 2011

The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that Finland has once again outperformed Australia and other countries which have resorted to market-based approaches to education. Finland achieved higher average results and much lower differences in results between rich and poor than Australia, England and the United States.

Finland has adopted a different approach to education than these countries. Key differences were recently spelled out by Pasi Sahlberg, director-general of the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation at Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture, in an article in the Boston Globe.

Sahlberg states that Finland has a different approach to student testing and how test data can or should not be used. Finnish children never take a standardized test. Nor are there standardized tests used to compare teachers or schools to each other. The public is informed about how well the education system works by using sample-based tests which place no pressure on schools.

Instead, teachers, students, and parents are all involved in assessing and also deciding how well schools, teachers, or students do what they are supposed to do. It is thought that teachers who work closely together with parents are the best judges of how well their children are learning in schools.

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge.

Sahlberg says that parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.

Educational leadership is also different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community.

Sahlberg suggests that education policies based on choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement should be re-considered. He says that none of the best performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and co-operation – not choice and competition – can lead to an education system where all children learn well.

He also says that paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charter schools or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

He suggests that education authorities should provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.

These are lessons that Julia Gillard and Peter Garrett would do well to heed.

Trevor Cobbold

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Closing the Gaps

Wednesday November 3, 2010

This is a summary of a new research paper called Closing the Gaps published by Save Our Schools.

Private schools are better resourced than government schools
Total expenditure per student in government schools in Australia is much lower than in Independent schools and similar to that in Catholic schools. Average total expenditure in Independent schools in 2007-08 was $15,147 per student compared to $10,723 per student in government schools and $10,399 per student in Catholic schools. The average total expenditure for all private schools was $12,303.

Many elite private schools in Australia have total annual resources of between $24,000 and $30,000 per senior secondary student, which is double or more that available to government secondary schools.

The gap in total expenditure between government and Independent schools has more than doubled since 1998-99 while the gap between government and Catholic school expenditure decreased by more than half. The expenditure advantage of Independent schools over government schools increased from $1,971 (in current $’s) in 1998-99 to $4,424 per student in 2007-08. The expenditure advantage of government schools over Catholic schools decreased from $852 to $324 per student.

The above figures remove some major incompatibilities in the way government and private school expenditure are measured, but they are still likely to significantly under-estimate private school expenditure in comparison with government schools for several reasons.

Expenditure on school transport by governments is included in government school expenditure but not in private school expenditure. In 2007-08, school transport expenditure in NSW and Queensland was $402 and $220 per student respectively.

Private school expenditure does not include government expenditure on administration of funding and regulation of private schools and expenditure on shared government services for private schools, whereas these items are included in government school expenditure.

The expenditure figures do not include the cost to government of tax deductible donations, which are much more significant for private schools than government schools. Government school expenditure does not include the use made of parent financial contributions, but these are very small. For example, they amounted to $72 per student in NSW and $31 per student in Queensland in 2009.

Increases in total expenditure (adjusted for inflation) by private schools outstripped those in government schools between 1998-99 and 2007-08. Government school expenditure increased by $1,147 per student compared to increases of $1,739 and $2,207 per student in Catholic and Independent schools respectively. The increase in Independent schools was nearly double that in government schools while the increase in Catholic schools was 52% more.

Total expenditure per student (adjusted for inflation) in government schools increased by 1.9% a year compared to 3.1% a year for Catholic schools between 1998-99 and 2007-08 and 2.6% a year in Independent schools.

Education disadvantage is greater in government schools
Government schools have to do more with their resources than Catholic and Independent schools because the extent of education disadvantage is much greater in government schools than in private schools.

Government schools are the main provider for educationally disadvantaged groups. The vast majority of low income (77%), Indigenous (86%), disability (80%), provincial (72%) and remote/very remote area (83%) students attend government schools.

Educationally disadvantaged students comprise a much larger proportion of government school enrolments than in private schools. Students from low income families comprised 40% of government school enrolments in 2006 compared to 25% in Catholic schools and 22% in Independent schools. In contrast, only 27% of government school enrolments were from high income families compared to 43% of Catholic school enrolments and 53% of Independent school enrolments.

Indigenous students accounted for 5.7% of government school enrolments in 2008 compared to 1.9% in Catholic schools and 1.6% of Independent school enrolments. Students with disabilities comprised 5.5% of all government school enrolments compared to 3.3% of Catholic school enrolments and 1.9% of Independent school enrolments;

Students in provincial areas comprised 28% of government school enrolments in 2008 compared to 21% of private school enrolments. Students from remote/very remote areas comprised 2.9% of government school enrolments compared to 1.5% of Catholic school enrolments and 0.7% of Independent enrolments.

Overall, the extent of education disadvantage in government schools in Australia is much greater than in private schools. Low income, Indigenous and disability students comprise over 50% of government school enrolments compared to 30% in Catholic and 26% in Independent schools. The extent of education disadvantage in government schools is 1.7 times that in Catholic schools, and almost double that in Independent schools.

There are large achievement gaps between low socio-economic status (SES) and high SES students; between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students; and between provincial and remote area students and metropolitan students.

In 2006, 22-23% of low SES students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 5% of high SES students. On average, low SES 15 year-old students are 2-2½ years behind high SES students. Low SES students enrolled in low SES schools are nearly four years behind students from high income families in high SES schools.

About 40% of 15 year-old Indigenous students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science in 2006 compared to 12% of all Australian students. On average, 15 year-old Indigenous students are 2-2½ years behind non-Indigenous students.

In 2006, 24-28% of 15 year-old students in remote and very remote areas did not achieve expected international proficiency levels in reading, mathematics and science compared to 12% of metropolitan students. On average, remote and very remote area students are about 18 months in learning behind metropolitan students.

Thirteen to twenty per cent of provincial area students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science, respectively, in 2006 compared to 12% of metropolitan students. Provincial area students are about six months or less behind metropolitan students.

Apart from the large achievement gap between low and high SES students there are also large gaps between Indigenous and provincial and remote area students and high SES students. On average, 15 year-old Indigenous students are about 3½ years behind high SES students; remote and very remote area students are about 2½ years behind high SES students; and provincial area students are about 18 months behind high SES students.

These large achievement gaps are a grave social injustice and a waste of talents and resources. They curb productivity growth and lead to higher expenditure on health, welfare and crime. Closing the gaps is the major challenge and priority for Australian governments. Low SES, Indigenous, and provincial and remote area students should achieve similar outcomes to students from high SES families.

Government funding increases have favoured privilege over disadvantage
Australian government funding policies have favoured privilege over disadvantage for the last decade. Despite the higher level of education disadvantage in government schools, the largest percentage increases in government funding (federal, state and territory) have gone to private schools. Schools serving the wealthiest families in Australia continue to receive large and increasing amounts of government funding.

The most privileged school sector – Independent schools – received the largest increase in government funding over the last decade. Between 1998-99 and 2007-08, government funding per student in Independent schools increased by 112%, 84% for Catholic schools and 67% for government schools. The average increase for all private schools was 89%. The percentage increase for Independent schools was over 1½ times the increase for government schools.

Many high fee private schools have total expenditure per student which is two to three times that in government schools, yet they receive $2,000-$4,000 per student in Federal Government funding. For example, the most expensive private school in Australia, Geelong Grammar with Year 12 fees of nearly $28,000, will get $3,456 per student in federal funding in 2010. King’s School, one of the most expensive schools in Sydney with Year 12 fees of nearly $25,000, will get $3,211 per student.

In contrast, the additional federal funding to be provided to disadvantaged schools under the Smarter Schools National Partnership program is less than $500 per student. Thus, Federal Government funding for high fee private schools is 4 to 8 times greater than the additional funding provided to disadvantaged schools.

Moreover, Federal Government funding per student in many elite schools increased by 100-200% and more since 2001 compared to increased funding (federal, state and territory) for government schools of 67% since 1998-99. For example, it increased by increased by 236% for Kings School and 268% for Geelong Grammar.

Thus, huge increases in government funding have gone to the wealthiest and least needy schools in Australia, while those most in need – government schools – continue to be denied the funding they require to provide an adequate education for all their students.

Supporting privilege is seen by governments as more important than eliminating disadvantage and inequity in education. It is a policy which extends the advantages obtained from a wealthy background rather than reducing them. It effectively places more value on enriching the lives of those from privileged backgrounds than those who are not as well favoured in society.

This is indefensible in a society that calls itself a democracy. A fundamental change in the funding priorities of Australian governments is required to close the achievement gaps in education. A massive funding increase for government schools is needed to transform our high quality, low equity education system into a high quality, high equity system.

Government schools need a massive funding boost
Overseas research studies show that the additional expenditure required for low income students to achieve at adequate levels is 100-150% more than the cost of educating an average student.

If average government school expenditure is used as this benchmark, some 22-33 times the level of funding for low SES government schools provided through the Smarter Schools National Partnership program is needed to close the achievement gap between low SES students and the average for all students in Australia. This amounts to at least an additional $6.3 – $9.2 billion a year. Double this amount ($13.6 – 18.4 billion) is needed to close the achievement gap between low and high SES students.

An alternative measure of the funding needed to address disadvantage in learning in Australia is to apply the ratio of targeted equity enrolments in the government and private sectors to the average level of resources in private schools. As government schools have 1.8 times the learning need of all private schools, they should receive 1.8 times the level of average private school expenditure. On this basis, additional funding for government schools of $26 billion per year is required to resource government schools to the level of private schools taking into account the greater extent of education disadvantage in the government sector.

Whatever, benchmark is used, it is clear that a massive funding increase for government schools is needed to close achievement gaps in Australia and turn our high quality, low equity school system into a high quality, high equity system.

Trevor Cobbold

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The Great School Accountability Hoax

Sunday June 20, 2010

Diane Ravitch’s latest blog shows how school accountability in the United States is a great hoax. It serves as a major warning on the future of school education in Australia under a policy regime that slavishly follows the US lead without regard to the evidence.

The following is an edited version. Read the full version at Education Week.

The evidence continues to accumulate that our “accountability” policies are a great fraud and hoax, but our elected officials and policymakers remain completely oblivious to the harm caused by the policies they mandate.

Over the past several years, efforts to “hold teachers accountable” and “hold schools accountable” have produced perverse consequences. Instead of better education, we are getting cheating scandals, teaching to bad tests, a narrowed curriculum, lowered standards, and gaming of the system. Even if it produces higher test scores (of dubious validity), high-stakes accountability does not produce better education.

In their eagerness to show “results,” states are dumbing down their standards. The New York state education department dropped cut scores on the state tests from 2006 (the year that annual testing in grades 3-8 was introduced) to 2009. In 2006, a student in 7th grade could achieve “proficiency” by getting 59.6 percent of the points correct on the state math test; by 2009, a student in the same grade needed only 44 percent of the available points.

When New York state’s education department was criticized for dropping the cut scores on its tests, officials responded by insisting that the department dropped the cut scores because the tests were actually harder than in previous years. This was utter nonsense because the passing rates soared as the cut scores fell, which would not have been the case if the tests were “harder.” So, although it never acknowledged its past chicanery, the state education department claimed that the tests would really, really, truly be hard this year and that standards would once again be high.

The scandal of high-stakes testing is not limited to New York and Illinois. Last week, The New York Times reported about the ubiquity of cheating scandals across the nation. My guess is that it revealed only the tip of the iceberg.

I was in Baltimore on May 27, when The Baltimore Sun wrote about a major cheating scandal at an elementary school that had been widely recognized for its excellent test scores. In 2003, only one-third of the students in the school passed the state reading test, but within four years, almost all did. This was a “miracle” school; it won a federal Blue Ribbon for its remarkable gains. But it turned out that the school’s success was phony: Someone had erased and corrected many student answers.

The more that test scores are used to measure teacher effectiveness and to determine the fate of schools, the more we will see such desperate efforts by teachers and principals to save their jobs and their schools.

Yet even as more cheating scandals are documented, even as the perfidy of state testing agencies is documented, our federal policymakers plunge forward, blithely imposing unproven policies as well as “remedies” that have been tested and found wanting. Latest example: The June 9 issue of Education Week has a front-page story with this headline: “Merit-Pay Model Pushed by Duncan Shows No Achievement Edge”.

Merit pay has been tried and found ineffective again and again since the 1920s, but repeated failure never discourages its advocates, who are certain that if the incentives were larger, or if some other element was adjusted, it would surely work.

More emphasis on test scores. More money for teachers if the scores go up. More punishment for teachers and schools if the scores don’t go up. More cheating. More gaming the system. More concentration on basic skills (they count) and more indifference to the arts, history, science, foreign languages, etc. (they don’t count).

Diane Ravitch is Professor of Education at New York University and a former Assistant Secretary of Education under George Bush Snr. Her latest book is The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

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Paying Cash for Better Test Scores is no Silver Bullet

Tuesday June 1, 2010

One of the more zany ideas to improve student achievement is to pay students cash to improve their results. For economists, however, this is a no brainer – cash incentives always work.

ANU Economics Professor, Andrew Leigh, who was recently pre-selected as Labor’s candidate for the seat of Canberra in the next federal election, says that cash payments to improve test scores should be trialled in Australia. He says providing cash incentives for students to improve their results could be tried in any low-income school in the country, but that the most likely place to start would be for Indigenous students.

Several trials have been conducted in the United States over the past few years, including one in New York City which was whole-heartedly endorsed by Julia Gillard’s mentor, Joel Klein, the city’s schools chancellor.

The trials were organised by Professor Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University, and involved 38,000 students in 261 public schools in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Washington, DC. Over 80% of the students were from low income families and nearly 90% were black or Hispanic. Over $6 million was paid out in incentives to students.

Students in New York and Chicago were paid for better test scores or grades while those in Dallas and Washington, DC were paid for activities which may contribute to better test scores such as reading books, increasing attendance and better behaviour. In each city, about half the participating schools were randomly selected to be ones where students received money. The progress of these students was compared with that of their peers in the other participating schools.

In New York City, the program was trialled in over 60 schools. Students were given cash incentives for their performance on six computerized exams (three in reading and three in math) as well as four predictive assessments that were pencil and paper tests. For each test, fourth grade students earned $25 for a perfect score and could make up to $250. Seventh grade students received $50 for a perfect score and could earn up to $500. Fourth graders also received $5 for taking each test and seventh-graders got $10.

In Chicago, ninth grade students were rewarded on a sliding scale for good grades in five courses, including English, maths and science. Getting an “A” was worth $50; a “D” meant no money. In theory a student could earn up to $250 every five weeks and $2,000 in a year.

In Dallas, second grade students were paid $2 per book to read up to 20 books per semester and do a computer-based comprehension test to prove they had read the books. In Washington DC, sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students were paid for improved attendance, behaviour, wearing school uniform, handing in homework and for class work. Students were paid on a point system and could earn up to $100 a fortnight.

The results were completely surprising according to Professor Fryer. Remarkably, he says, in a paper published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the cash incentives did not increase students’ test results in Chicago or New York. In each case, the effect of the incentives was statistically zero or very small. The paper concludes that paying students to increase test scores or grades does not work. It says that “incentives are by no means a silver bullet”.

Similarly, the incentives paid to students in Washington DC to increase attendance, behaviour and school work had a negligible effect on test scores. Attendance, behaviour and school work improved but there was only a marginal improvement in reading and no statistically significant effect on mathematics tests scores.

The payments to read more books in Dallas schools were more successful. Paying second grade students to read books had a relatively large effect on their reading comprehension, a more modest effect on their language scores, and a statistically insignificant effect on vocabulary.

From this, Professor Fryer concludes that providing cash incentives for “inputs” into student results is a better option “because students do not know the educational production function, and thus have little clue how to turn their excitement about rewards into achievement”. He further concludes that paying students to read more books is a more cost effective approach to improving reading than reducing class sizes in the early years, paying teachers more to work in high need schools and early childhood programs.

This is a very ambitious conclusion on the basis of one very small project involving just 22 schools. But, apart from this, it may not even be cost effective itself. Students can be encouraged to love reading with the right support from teachers and parents at no extra cost. Altruistic incentives seem to have positive results, as witnessed by the various schemes operating in several states in Australia whereby sponsors make monetary contributions to charities based on how many books children read.

Given these results, it can only be hoped that Professor Leigh does not take his proposal to Julia Gillard. Otherwise she might be inclined to take on another failed scheme from her mentor, Joel Klein.

Trevor Cobbold

Ronald Fryer. Financial Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from Randomized Trials, Working Paper No. 15898, National Bureau of Economic Research, April 2010.

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