NAPLAN Results Show That the ACT Government Has Dropped the Ball on Education

The new NAPLAN results for the ACT are a condemnation of Government inaction on school education. They show that the ACT school system continues to underperform despite its advantaged population. The continuing poor results give cause for a serious review of ACT school performance – public and private.

Reading, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy results across Years 3, 5, 7 & 9 have been mostly stagnant since 2008 when the national tests were introduced. There has been virtually no improvement in average scores for eight years. Writing results have mostly declined since 2011 when the current writing test was introduced. The only statistically significant increases were in Year 3 reading and grammar and punctuation.

The ACT has many advantages over other jurisdictions in factors that influence school results. It has higher average income and parent education levels than elsewhere. It has fewer disadvantaged students and less extreme poverty. The average socio-economic status of students and schools in the ACT is much higher than in other states. All its schools are in the metropolitan area; it has no remote area students. Average school (public and private) income per student is higher than any other jurisdiction except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Despite these advantages, average writing, spelling and numeracy results for the ACT are no better than for Australia. Average writing and spelling scores in Years 3, 5 and 7 are statistically similar to the Australian average as are numeracy scores in Years 5 & 7 and grammar and punctuation in Years 3 & 5. Although the ACT does much better than the Australian average in reading, these other results are damning.

More detailed results published last year by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) show that progress made by ACT students from Year 3 to Year 9 was also no better than the Australian average. For example, students who were in Year 3 in 2009 increased their average reading result to Year 9 in 2015 by 165 points compared to the average increase across Australia of 169 points. The growth in numeracy in the ACT was 190 points compared to 198 points for Australia, a difference which is not statistically significant.

The ACT should be doing better than this, given its advantages.

The ACT’s equity performance is also poor. The relationship between the socio-economic background of students and achievement in the ACT is the strongest in Australia except for the Northern Territory.

Detailed NAPLAN results for 2015 published by ACARA last December show a large achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in the ACT which increases through school. Year 3 students from families with low education levels are a year or more behind students from families with high education levels in all subjects tested. By Year 9, students from lowly educated families are two to three years behind.

Year 3 Indigenous students are about two years behind students from highly educated families and by Year 9 are about four years behind. ACARA’s statistical analysis shows that Indigenous results across all subjects in all Year levels tested have not improved since 2008.

The poor performance by the ACT school system has implications for the long-term state of the ACT economy. The ACT is essentially a knowledge-based economy dependent on education improvement for its prosperity. An underperforming education system means an underperforming economy.

The ACT Government should be held accountable for the continuing stagnation, decline and large inequity in NAPLAN results. The Government has ignored the trends for too long.

This poor performance demands a serious review. There has not been a major review of ACT school results since performance testing was introduced in the ACT nearly 20 years ago. The results warrant a full, independent public review because the ACT Government has long failed to take any substantial action to improve education outcomes.

Such a review could canvass the many factors outside and inside schools that influence student outcomes and develop a comprehensive strategy with the input of teachers, parents, academics and the broader community. For example, it could look at the impact of factors outside school such as poverty, homelessness, health, and early childhood services. In-school factors to be looked at include leadership qualities, remedial learning programs, absenteeism, student welfare services and parent involvement in learning.

One critical factor to be examined is how well funding is targeted to need in ACT public and private schools. Funding for low socio-economic status students in the ACT is negligible and by far the lowest in Australia. Historically, it has only ever been less than 5 per cent of total funding. This has to change if we are to improve results for disadvantaged students, narrow the wide achievement gaps and improve overall results.

Trevor Cobbold

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