False Claims by Minister on ACER Report

The Minister for Education, Andrew Barr, claimed last week that the report on student performance commissioned from the Australian Educational Research Council (ACER) shows that “our lowest socio-economic students performed better than their counterparts anywhere else in Australia” [ABC News, 26 March 2008]. He also made a similar claim in a media release on the report.

This claim is false. The ACER report clearly shows that 15 year old students from the lowest socio-economic status (SES) levels do no better than those in at least several other states.

The ACER report estimates what are called “socio-economic gradients” to show the differences in achievement between low and high SES students and to compare inequalities in achievement across the states and territories. The slope of the gradient line is an indication of the extent of inequality in the relationship between students’ results and their socio-economic background. A steeper slope indicates a greater difference in performance between low socioeconomic background students and high socioeconomic background students.

Figures 4.2, 4.3 and 4.4 of the report show the socio-economic gradients for all states in science, reading and mathematics. In each case, the ACT line meets that of other states at the low SES end and in some cases crosses the lines of other states. For example, the ACT line for science crosses that of NSW and meets that of Victoria at the low SES end. This means that low SES students in the ACT are doing no better than low SES students in these states.

The graphs published in the report do not report the statistical confidence limits for the gradients. If these were overlaid on the lines, it is likely that low SES in the ACT are doing no better than low SES students in every other state except Tasmania and the Northern Territory in reading, mathematics and science and perhaps Western Australia in science.

The ACER report also provides other evidence that low SES students in the ACT are doing no better than their counterparts in other states. Tables 3.10, 3.11 and 3.12 of the report show that the proportion of low SES students in the ACT achieving below or above the OECD mean is statistically similar to the average for Australia in science, reading and mathematics. That is, the low SES students in the ACT are doing no better than their counterparts across Australia.

The Minister also claimed that the ACT Government has raised education standards across all socio-economic groups. This is another false claim.

The ACER report shows that literacy achievement by 15 year olds has declined in the ACT since 2000 and that there has been no improvement in mathematics performance. There also was no improvement in the proportion of low and high SES students achieving above the OECD mean in reading, science and mathematics. The proportions in 2006 are statistically similar to those in 2000.

The Minister is desperately avoiding the issue of achievement gaps between low and high SES students in the ACT. The socio-economic gradients published in the ACER report demonstrate that the achievement gaps in the ACT are the highest in Australia, except for the Northern Territory.

Reducing these achievement gaps is the most fundamental challenge facing ACT education. The evidence from the ACER report is that there has been no reduction in the achievement gaps in the ACT since the Stanhope Government was elected. If anything, the evidence tends to suggest that the gaps have increased although there is considerable statistical uncertainty associated with the results.

It is time the Minister stopped his ‘spin’ of false claims to distract attention from the large achievement gap between low and high SES students and got on with the job of doing something about it.

Trevor Cobbold

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