Large Achievement Gaps Revealed in Victorian Schools

A new report by the Victorian Auditor-General on literacy and numeracy achievement in Victorian government schools has cast more light on the achievement gaps between students.

It shows very large achievement gaps between high-achieving and low-achieving students, between students from rich and poor families and between regions in Victoria. It also shows that these achievement gaps have not reduced over the past 10 years.

The report found that the lowest-achieving students were around two years of learning behind the highest-achieving students in both literacy and numeracy for Years 3 to 9. However, it notes some improvement amongst the lowest-achieving students in literacy though not in numeracy.

The analysis also found that the achievement gap between students from low- and high-SES (socio-economic status) schools was wide at all year levels for both literacy and numeracy. Students from low-SES schools were up to a year or more below the achievement level of their counterparts from high-SES schools for both literacy and numeracy. This achievement gap widened as students progressed through school from Years 3 to 9. In Year 9, the gap represented 15 months of learning for both literacy and numeracy. There was no change in the gaps at each Year level between 1998 and 2007.

The well-off Eastern region of Melbourne had much higher average results than any other region in Victoria. Its average results were up to a year ahead of the lowest SES regions.

In terms of overall results, the Auditor-General’s report found no marked improvement in average literacy and numeracy achievement across age groups over the 10–year period to 2007. This was despite a significant amount of funding devoted to improving literacy and numeracy. Some improvements were made in primary schools but average literacy and numeracy achievement declined in secondary school. Average student performance dropped further below the expected level for each year level as students progressed from Year 3 to Year 9.

The most startling data is provided in an appendix of the report. In 2007, 25 per cent of Year 3 students (11 000 students) were a year or more below the expected level for literacy and numeracy. Thirty-five per cent of Year 5 students (15 000 students) were below the expected level and it was similar for Year 7. Thirty-seven per cent of Year 9 students (14 800 students) were below the expected literacy level and 50% were below the expected numeracy level.

These figures contrast with the National Assessment Program testing of literacy and numeracy in 2008. The proportion of Victorian students (from all school sectors) achieving the national benchmark minimum standards was above the national average in every test and at every year level. Victoria generally had a small proportion of students not achieving the national benchmarks. The Auditor-General’s report says that the national benchmark standards are less challenging than the Victorian learning standards.

The report concludes that both the nature and the scale of the literacy and numeracy strategies currently being applied need to be thoroughly re-assessed in order to make a difference. It says that there is a need to focus effort early on the students that need support, and for that support to be closely monitored and sustained as students progress through school. This focus is needed for both low-SES schools and for low-achieving students in higher-SES schools.

The report says that funding to address social inequity in literacy and numeracy achievement is inadequate. At present, it amounts to around 3% of the total schools’ budget which is very low in light of the large achievement deficit of students from low-SES schools. Over the last 10 years targeted at improving the literacy and numeracy achievements of students from low-socio-economic status (SES) schools had only a small positive effect on literacy and no effect on numeracy. The report says there is a need to target the large numbers of students who are achieving well below the expected levels in literacy and numeracy.

Its assessment of various programs and initiatives found that the small scale of most of the improvements in student literacy and numeracy achievement over the last decade is a strong indicator that substantial change to the way literacy and numeracy improvement is supported is needed to make a real difference. In particular, there is a great need to bridge the gap between the performance of students from low-SES schools and those from high-SES schools, and to stop the gap from widening as students progress through school.

The Auditor-General makes six recommendations: adopt a stronger focus on numeracy; address the performance gap between high- and low-SES schools; identify and address issues contributing to declining achievements and share successful approaches; improve identification and targeting of students achieving well below the expected level; implement a consistent and evidence-based continuous improvement approach and improve the value of achievement data for monitoring student progress.

This report, together with that of the NSW Auditor-General last year, presents a major challenge to governments to reduce achievement gaps and fulfil their national commitment to improve outcomes for socially disadvantaged students.

These reports clearly demonstrate that inadequate funding is being allocated to reducing achievement gaps. For example, the Victorian Government allocated $127 million to literacy and numeracy improvement in 2006-07 and $104 million in equity and welfare funding to low SES schools.

Assuming that literacy and numeracy funding should be targeted at roughly the bottom 20% of students across government schools it amounts to about $1182 per student. The equity and welfare funding amounts to $387 per student based on enrolments in schools eligible for this funding as estimated in a review of the equity funding program published in 2007.

Thus, the total targeted funding in 2006-07 was $1569 per student. This is a relatively minor proportion of total real funding as it represents only about 15% of total funding per student in Victoria in 2006-07 ($10716).

This figure looks impressive but it is far less than what is generally accepted as required to support children in learning need and to reduce achievement gaps. For example, several US states provide additional funding for each at-risk student equal to 50 per cent of the average cost per student. Research studies show that the funding required for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve adequate outcomes is two to three times average per student costs. Even more funding would be required to improve the average outcomes of these students so that they match those of well-off students.

In order to match the funding proportions for learning disadvantaged students in some US states, the Victorian Government should be spending about $5350 per student, more than three times what it is now spending. To match what the research estimates indicate is necessary, it should be spending at least $21432 per student, or nearly 14 times what it is now allocated to learning disadvantaged students.

Clearly, there is a huge gap between Victorian Government expenditure on low achieving students and what is required to ensure adequate outcomes, let alone that needed to support them to achieve at the same average levels as those in the high income eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

As a result, there can be little wonder that the Victorian Auditor-General found no progress in reducing the achievement gap in Victoria over the past decade. The fact is that the Victorian Government, like other governments, provides only a token level of funding to alleviate the effects of socio-economic disadvantage on student achievement. Until governments around Australia drastically increase funding for government schools to reduce the effects of disadvantage we will see little progress in reducing the large achievement gaps that exist in Australia’s schools.

The Federal Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, has said that the Rudd Government will allocate an additional $500 000 per disadvantaged school in Australia. Once again, this looks an impressive figure. However, this only amounts to an additional $1000 per student for a low SES school of 500 students compared to average expenditure per student of $11874 across Australia in 2006-07, that is, less than 10% of average expenditure per student.

This is more tokenism. Even when this is added to the Victorian Government funding for literacy and numeracy improvement and for low SES schools, the total funding available in Victorian government schools to combat the effect of social disadvantage on student learning remains far below what is required to make a difference. Any effect of the increased Federal funding will be undermined by the introduction of reporting school results which will only exacerbate the existing achievement gap.

The fact is that Australian Governments have to do a whole lot better on reducing the large achievement gap between students from high and low income families. Over 40% of students from low SES families fail to complete Year 12 compared to 22% of students from high SES families.

On average, 15 year-old students from low SES families are over two years behind high SES students in reading, mathematics and science and 22-23% of students from low SES families do not achieve expected international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science.

Trevor Cobbold

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