Student Results in Australia are High, but Very Unequal and not Improving

The latest results from the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) generated a wave of self-congratulation from Education Ministers around Australia which should be qualified.

While student achievement remains high, there has been little improvement in recent years and there is a large gap in the results of rich and poor students. Reducing this gap is the greatest challenge facing Australian education.

Student outcomes are high

The 2009 NAPLAN results show that only about 6-9 per cent of all students tested do not achieve the national reading benchmarks. About 4-8 per cent of Year 3, 5 and 7 students and about 12-13 per cent of Year 9 students do not achieve national writing benchmarks. About 5-7 per cent of all students do not achieve the national numeracy benchmarks.

However, recent international assessments show higher proportions of students not achieving expected standards in Australia.

The Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) which tests 15-year old students shows that 13-14 per cent of Australian students did not achieve international benchmarks in reading and mathematics in 2006. In contrast, the NAPLAN results for Year 9 students show that 8 per cent are below the national reading benchmark, 10 per cent are below the spelling and grammar benchmarks and 5 per cent are below the numeracy benchmark. Twelve per cent were below the national writing benchmark.

The Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results show that 9 per cent of Year 4 students and 11 per cent of Year 8 students did not achieve the low international benchmark in mathematics in 2007. This compares with 6 per cent of Year 5 students and 5 per cent of Year 9 students not achieving the NAPLAN numeracy benchmarks in 2009.

It should be noted that these various assessments assess different aspects of student learning, incorporate different standards of achievement, were done at different times and assess different year levels and ages.

Little to no improvement in the last decade

The national assessment and PISA results indicate that there has been no overall improvement in student achievement in Australia in recent years.

National test results have been largely stagnant since 2001. In general, there was no statistically significant improvement in the proportion of students achieving national benchmarks in reading, writing and numeracy between 2001 and 2007.

The new NAPLAN tests were introduced in 2008 and incorporated reporting of average test scores for the first time. Average results increased slightly in reading in Years 3 and 5 and in numeracy in Year 5. There was no statistically significant change in the other results for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

There was no improvement in the proportion of students achieving the reading and writing benchmarks for Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 from 2008 to 2009. There were some slight improvements in numeracy.

The PISA studies show that average scores for reading by 15-year old students declined between 2000 and 2006. The proportion of students below the expected international reading standard increased from 12 per cent in 2000 to 14 per cent in 2006.

There was no significant difference in the average results for mathematics between 2003 and 2006. In 2003, 14 per cent of 15-year old students did not achieve the expected international standard in mathematics compared to 13 per cent in 2006.

Australia’s results on TIMSS since 1995 and 2003 are mixed. The Year 4 mathematics results improved unambiguously but Year 8 results declined or stagnated. The Year 4 science results some improvement and some stagnation while the Year 8 results declined unambiguously from 2003 to 2007.

Average results in mathematics in Year 4 increased between 1995 and 2007 and between 2003 and 2007. The proportion of students not achieving the low international mathematics benchmark for Year 4 declined continuously from 14 per cent in 1995 to 12 per cent in 2003 and to 9 per cent in 2007. The average results for Year 8 declined from 1995 to 2007 while the proportion of Year 8 students not achieving the low international benchmark remained about the same at around 10 per cent of students.

In science, average results for Year 4 students remained much the same from 1995 to 2007 and from 2003 to 2007. However, the proportion of students not achieving the low benchmark declined from 11 per cent in 1995 to 7 per cent in 2007. The average science results for Year 8 declined from 2003 to 2007 while the proportion of students not achieving the low international benchmark increased from 5 to 8 per cent.

Large achievement gaps remain

The other reason for qualification about Australia’s results is that governments have made little to no progress in reducing the large gap in results between students from rich and poor families.

According to the latest PISA results, nearly 25 per cent of 15 year-old students from low income families in Australia do not achieve expected international proficiency standards. In 2006, 22-23 per cent of low socio-economic status (SES) students did not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, mathematics and science compared to only 5 per cent of high SES students. Thus, the proportion of low SES students not achieving expected levels is about 5 times that of high SES students.

In contrast, the proportion of high SES students achieving the highest proficiency levels is about 5 times that of low SES students. In 2006, only 4 per cent of low SES students achieved the highest reading proficiency standard compared with 21 per cent of high SES students. In mathematics, the respective proportions were 6 and 29 per cent and in science it was 6 per cent compared to 26 per cent.

On average, 15 year-old students from low SES families are two years or more behind high SES students. In 2006, the differences in average score points between low and high SES students in reading, mathematics and science were 84, 78 and 87 respectively

The proportion of low SES students achieving below the OECD average is about 2½ times that for high SES students. In 2006, 53-55 per cent of low SES students achieved below the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science compared to 22-24 per cent of high SES students.

There is little evidence of any reduction in the gap between the achievement of rich and poor students. No reduction has occurred in the gap in the proportion of low and high SES students achieving below the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science since 2000. Reports by the NSW and Victorian Auditor-Generals have found that little progress in reducing the gap over the past decade or so.

Reducing the achievement gap is the main challenge

Reducing the large achievement gap between rich and poor students is the biggest challenge facing Australian education.

Differential access to education blights a democratic society. It means that some social groups are consistently discriminated against in providing opportunities for rewarding livelihoods and successful participation in adult society.

Large disparities in school outcomes for students from different social backgrounds entrench inequality and discrimination in society. Students from more privileged backgrounds have greater access to higher incomes, higher status occupations and positions of wealth, influence and power in society than students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

The large disparity in school outcomes indicates a waste of talents, skills and resources. It is, in effect, a measure of the potential to improve workforce skills and productivity.

Several Australian governments have acknowledged the large achievement gap and additional funding has been allocated to disadvantaged schools and students. However, it is unlikely to be sufficient to significantly reduce the achievement gap. Its impact will also be weakened by counter-acting pressures arising from policies designed to extend market forces in education.

Current national education policy is fatally contradictory. Its primary focus is on extending the market in education, a policy which can only exacerbate the disparity in student results. Extending the market and improving social equity in education are incompatible policies.

Inevitably, it is equity which loses out, as it has in England and the US. Instead of improving student achievement, market-oriented school systems lead to greater social segregation and exacerbate achievement gaps in schooling.

As long as the current policy focus on extending choice and competition remains, we face the prospect of greater educational divides, not less.

Trevor Cobbold

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