The ACT’s Underperfoming School System Warrants Independent Review

The latest national report on the NAPLAN results published last week indicates that the ACT school system (public and private) is underperforming. It appears to be underperforming on average student results, student progress and equity. The apparent under-performance warrants an independent public review.

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 NAPLAN results for the ACT are no better than for Australia and several states. The report’s statistical analysis of state relativities shows that the ACT results in writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are not statistically different from the Australian average or those in several states.

Only in reading does the ACT outperform the Australian average and even here the ACT results are not statistically different from Victoria’s, except in Year 7.

A major concern is that average results for most subjects and Year levels have not improved since 2008. The report’s analysis shows that average reading, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy results in almost every Year level in 2015 were not statistically different from 2008. The only exceptions were improvements in reading in Years 3 & 5, grammar and punctuation in Year 3, and Year 5 numeracy.

Writing results have also stagnated since 2011 when the persuasive writing test was introduced. There was a substantial fall in average scores across all Year levels, but the NAPLAN report says the falls are not statistically significant.

The progress made by ACT students from Year 3 to Year 9 was also no better than the Australian average or that of several states. 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.  

There is a large achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students 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. The statistical analysis in the NAPLAN report shows that Indigenous results across all subjects in all Year levels tested have not improved since 2008.

The report does not provide a similar statistical analysis of the results for students from highly and lowly educated families from year to year. The average scores of students from lowly educated families appear to have improved, but they are unlikely to be statistically significant.

Moreover, while the results of students from lowly educated families appear to be much better than those in other states this is likely because the ACT has much lower levels of disadvantage and less extreme poverty than elsewhere.

Despite the poor performance, the Minister for Education, Joy Burch, indulged in her annual orgy of self-congratulation for what she claims is superior performance in the ACT. This annual orgy obscures real problems which continue to be swept under the carpet. There has been no real improvement in overall results and large inequities in school outcomes remain.

The under-performance of the ACT school system has been highlighted in successive reports from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The verdict of the 2012 PISA report was damning:

Somewhat surprisingly (given the Australian Capital Territory’s overall socioeconomic background), socioeconomically average schools in the Australian Capital Territory performed at about the same level as similar schools in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania; while students in socioeconomically average and advantaged schools in the Australian Capital Territory performed at a lower level than students in similar schools in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. [p.286]

The ACT has become over-complacent about its school results. This is a mistake for a knowledge-based economy dependent on education improvement for its prosperity. An underperforming education system means an underperforming economy. It is particularly unfair for disadvantaged students who continue to miss out on an adequate education and face low income, long-term unemployment and poor health in their adult lives.

There has been no major review of ACT school results since performance measures were first introduced nearly 20 years ago. It is time for review. The ACT Government should establish an independent public review of ACT school results across public and private schools to assess performance and make recommendations for improvement, particularly for disadvantaged students. 

Trevor Cobbold

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