The latest national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) results show that government education policies have had little to no impact on student achievement in Australia since 2008. There has been virtually no change in overall average results, in the results of disadvantaged students and in the large gaps between the results of disadvantaged and advantaged students. Governments are failing disadvantaged students and their families.
Average results in reading and numeracy have not improved since 2008 for most Year levels [Charts 1 & 2 below]. The only statistically significant improvement was in Year 3 reading and Year 5 numeracy.
The average results for disadvantaged students have mostly not improved either. In particular, the average reading and numeracy results of students whose parents did not complete Year 12 have not improved since 2008 for nearly all the Year levels tested [Charts 3 & 4]. The only statistically significant increase was for Year 5 numeracy. The results of Indigenous students have mostly not improved, but statistically significant increases occurred for Years 3 & 7 reading and Year 5 numeracy.
Very large achievement gaps between the most advantaged and disadvantaged students remain. In 2011, Year 9 students of parents who had not completed Year 12 were 73 points in reading behind students whose parents had a university degree and 80 points behind in numeracy [Chart 5]. These gaps are equivalent to three to four years of schooling (the average gain for all students between Years 7 & 9 is about 40 points on the NAPLAN reading and numeracy scales, or 20 points per year). The gaps for both reading and numeracy have increased since 2008.
Year 9 students from low educated families achieved much lower scores in reading and numeracy than Year 7 students from highly educated families and only a little above the scores of Year 5 students from these families. For example, the average reading score of Year 9 students from low educated families in 2011 was 544 compared to 579 for Year 7 students from high educated families and 529 for Year 5 students.
The gap in results between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Year 9 students is also very large, amounting to just over three years of learning. There has been no reduction of the gaps since 2008. The reading and numeracy scores for Year 9 Indigenous students in 2011 are even below those of Year 5 students from highly educated families. For example, Year 9 Indigenous students scored 518 in reading compared to 529 by Year 5 students from highly educated families.
Remote area Year 9 students were 35 points behind metropolitan students in reading and 44 points behind in numeracy 9 (these figures do not include very remote area students). These gaps are equivalent of about two years of schooling. There was a very small decrease in these gaps since 2008.
High proportions of disadvantaged students did not achieve the national benchmarks for reading and numeracy in 2011. Sixteen per cent of Year 9 students whose parents did not complete Year 12 did not achieve the national reading benchmark and 15% did not achieve the numeracy benchmark [Chart 6]. Only 2% of students whose parents have a university degree failed to achieve the reading and numeracy benchmarks. The proportion of students from low educated parents not achieving the benchmarks has increased slightly since 2008.
Nearly 30% of Indigenous students did not achieve the reading and numeracy benchmarks and there has been virtually no change in these proportions since 2008. Eighteen per cent of remote area students did not achieve the reading benchmark in 2011 and 16% did not achieve the numeracy benchmark. There was no change in these percentages since 2008.
There is also a very large gap between the proportions of disadvantaged and advantaged students achieving in the top band of results. In 2011, only one per cent of Year 9 students from low educated families achieved in the top band for reading and 2% in numeracy [Chart 7]. In contrast, 13% of students from highly educated families were in the top reading band and 20% were in the top numeracy band. This gap has not decreased since 2008.
Less than one per cent of Year 9 Indigenous students achieved in the top band of reading and numeracy in 2011 as was the case in 2008. About 3% of remote area students achieved in the top bands in 2011, very slightly up from 2008.
Clearly, Australian Government and state/territory government education policies have had little discernible impact on student results over the past three years. Inequity in education remains as great as ever. The inequities revealed in the latest NAPLAN results are consistent with those of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which show increasing achievement gaps between rich and poor from 2006 to 2009.
Governments have failed disadvantaged students and their families. Governments are simply not doing enough to reduce inequity in education. Much more has to be done. Reducing these large achievement gaps is the biggest challenge facing Australian education.
These gaps constitute a major social injustice. Low socio-economic status (SES), Indigenous, and remote area students are being denied the same educational opportunities as high SES students. Our education system is effectively discriminating against low SES, Indigenous, and remote area families by failing to provide their schools with adequate resources to make a difference. Governments provide about $400 million a year to 80 of the wealthiest private schools in Australia with annual fees of $20,000 or more a year while schools serving the disadvantaged have to do with half the total resources available to students in these highly privileged schools.
As long as governments refuse to act, students from privileged backgrounds will continue to have greater access to higher incomes, higher status occupations and positions of wealth, influence and power in society than students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Refusal to address these inequities is tantamount to compounding the privileges of the wealthy in education and in our society more broadly.
The achievement gaps are a constraint on Australia’s productivity growth. They reflect a waste of talents, skills and resources. The gaps are, in effect, a measure of the potential to improve workforce skills and productivity. Increased knowledge and skills are critical to increasing productivity growth. Improving the results of low SES, Indigenous and remote area students to match those of high SES students would provide a dramatic impetus to productivity growth.
Lifting the education results of disadvantaged students and reducing the achievement gaps would also have massive social benefits. Higher education outcomes bring improved health outcomes, reduced crime and reduced dependence on social security. Investment in public expenditure on education brings greater returns in reduced public expenditure on health care, law and order and social security.
The latest NAPLAN results show that governments must change their priorities in education and focus on reducing education disadvantage. Governments must invest much more heavily in government schools because they enrol 80% or more of disadvantaged students. The Gonski review of school funding should provide the catalyst for such a change of priorities because it has said repeatedly over the course of the review that its focus is on improving equity in education outcomes.