League tables used in ACT school closures

Schedules to 20,000 pages of Freedom of Information (FOI) papers and the findings of a related Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing that were handed down only this year provide strong evidence that the results from student literacy and numeracy testing, then called ACTAP (the ACT Assessment Program), were used in the 2006 school closures.

At the time, the Chief Minister in his role as acting Education Minister denied accusations of using ACTAP in this way, calling them ‘mischievous’ and ‘false’ (_Canberra Times_ 08/08/06). More recently, the same government has insisted it opposes using the results of student testing to create league tables (Canberra Times 28/08/08, p. 4).

But the truth is ACTAP results were used in closing schools; and the Stanhope government has sought to cover it up.

References to ACTAP results are found in several places in the FOI:

  • averages for student outcomes for schools, contained in a two-page spreadsheet that was discussed by Cabinet meeting, having been taken into the meeting at the request of the Minister for Education
  • comments on ACTAP results for schools contained in an undated two-page document for a Cabinet meeting

From the description in the schedule, the student outcomes information was in a format that sounds remarkably like league tables. These documents have never been released to the public. Only schedules, the reasons for withholding documents, and the summary of the Tribunal decision have been released.

Despite Education Department claims that ACTAP results were not used in formulating the proposals, the AAT decision indicates that a departmental officer later gave evidence in the Tribunal hearings that ‘the ACTAP results was [sic] a relevant factor in looking at the educational aspects of the 2020 proposal’.

The question must be asked: why were ACTAP results even brought into Cabinet meetings, let alone discussed?

ACTAP results were actually made public early in the school closures process, in the infamous school factsheets containing one-liners such as: ‘based on 2005 ACTAP data, student learning outcomes [at your school] are not strong’.

The factsheets had a short life, being taken down within a day of publication due to complaints from parents, and later republished minus the offending ACTAP line. By the department’s own admission to the Tribunal, these ACTAP comments were inaccurate and misleading because they were ‘not actual but a brief subjective comment’. ‘The information … was based on the data for a single year and was unreliable because meaningful results could only be obtained from trend data over a 3–5 year period’ according to the Department.

The Department of Education claimed these pages were not used to decide which schools to close, although many schools felt they were unfairly targeted by the sweeping and rather inaccurate statements. On the flip side, some now-closed school communities were upset because their school did not have the ACTAP line, and they claimed their ACTAP results were amongst the highest.

Neither the Minister nor the department has ever revealed whether the ACTAP information discussed in Cabinet was as inaccurate and misleading as that contained in the factsheets.

The final piece of evidence is the citing of ACTAP results as one of the reasons for closing schools in the ‘Notice of Decision’ each school received in 2007 – this is the legal document that summarises the reasons for the decision to close a school.

The government has never explained to public schools why their children’s ACTAP results were even in a Cabinet meeting, let alone how and why this information was used in the school closures. This was from a government that now decries league tables.

It is time for the Stanhope government to come clean, admit to misusing student information in this way and let the people make their own judgement. Alternatively, they could just release all the suppressed FOI pages to prove that their version of events is, after all, completely true.

Trevor Cobbold

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