Declining Standards and Inequity in ACT Education

This is a summary of a new report published by Save Our Schools on school outcomes in the ACT. It can be downloaded below.

The ACT has high average school outcomes but they have declined over the past decade. It also has amongst the largest achievement gaps between the top and bottom students of all countries participating in international tests and the largest achievement gap between rich and poor in Australia. The gaps have not reduced over the last decade.

The ACT has high average school outcomes
The ACT has high average outcomes in the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) tests for 15 year-olds. Average reading, mathematics and science results in the ACT are amongst the highest in the world. It has the highest average scores in reading and science in Australia and the second highest in mathematics.

High proportions of ACT 15 year-old students are performing at the most advanced levels. In 2009, 18 per cent were at the most advanced reading levels, 22 per cent in mathematics and 20 per cent in science. These are amongst the highest proportions in the OECD and are well above the average for the OECD.

Relatively low proportions of ACT 15 year-old students are performing at the lowest levels in reading, mathematics and science compared to other states. Eleven to 13 per cent of ACT students are at the lowest levels compared to 12 to 16 per cent for Australia. These are lower than the average for the OECD.

The average ACT results in the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests are the highest or equal highest in Australia.

Retention rates from Years 7/8 to 12 and completion rates for Year 12 are also the highest in Australia.

The ACT has large achievement gaps
The ACT has amongst the largest spread of test scores for reading, mathematics and science in the 65 countries and cities participating in PISA; in the case of science it is the largest. It also has the largest spread of test scores in Australia, except for the Northern Territory. The gaps between the highest and lowest 5% of 15 year-old ACT students are equivalent to 7 to 9 years of schooling.

These differences are strongly associated with student background. The ACT has the largest achievement gap in reading between high and low socio-economic status (SES) students in Australia. On average, ACT students in the lowest SES quartile are over three years in learning behind students in the highest SES quartile.

Low SES ACT students are doing worse than those in most other states. Their average reading results are about six months or more of schooling behind low SES students in all other states except Tasmania and the Northern Territory. The latest national PISA report says that low SES students in the ACT “are not particularly well served by their education system” [p.281].

The latest NAPLAN results also show large achievement gaps between children of highly educated and highly skilled parents and those from lowly educated and low-skilled families in the ACT. Year 9 students of low-educated and low-skilled parents are about four years behind students of high educated and highly skilled parents in reading and numeracy. ACT Year 9 students whose parents did not complete Year 12 have a similar reading level to Year 5 students whose parents have a university degree.

Average results have declined while achievement gaps remain
Average reading and mathematics results for ACT 15 year-olds have fallen over the last decade. Students are now about six months behind their counterparts of 2001 and 2003.

The proportion of ACT students not achieving international benchmarks has increased while the proportion at the most advanced levels has fallen. For example, the proportion of students not achieving the reading benchmark increased from 8 to 13% between 2000 and 2009 while the proportion achieving at the most advanced levels fell from 25 to 18%.

The gaps between the highest and lowest 5 per cent of students in the ACT increased slightly over the last decade while the achievement gaps between low and high SES have continued without reduction.

Urgent action is needed on declining education standards and inequity
ACT education performance over the past decade has been shameful. It has to do better. Its future economic prosperity depends on arresting the decline in results and reducing the large achievement gaps. The future lives of its children are at stake.

The decline in standards and continuing large achievement gaps warrant urgent action.

A new ACT Government should commit to implementing the funding model recommended by the Gonski review of school funding to deliver a large funding increase for low SES students in government and private schools.

An independent public inquiry should be established to advise on how to reverse the decline in education outcomes and on policies and approaches to reduce the achievement gaps between rich and poor.

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