This article was originally published by Say No To NAPLAN. It is one of several papers recently published by the group. The full set is available on the Literacy Educators’ Coalition website.
In my role as a teacher educator, I asked pre-service teachers to analyse NAPLAN results and compare them to the wealth of the school’s parents, and then explain any connections they found. The teachers were checking Richard Teese’s claim that “It’s not an even playing field in which talent can blossom from whatever location – it’s people excelling through social advantage [Weekend Australian, 7 April 2012]. In this article, entitled Rich Kids Do Better at School, it was reported that the country’s top 100 primary and secondary schools have students from well-to-do suburbs.
The pre-service teachers compared primary schools in poorer areas of Melbourne with schools in wealthier suburbs. They looked at the MySchool website to find each school’s Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA). This is primarily a measure of the wealth of the school’s parents. On this site, the “average income level” for parents in Australia is scored as 1000.
The ICSEA score for Deer Park North is 934, for Broadmeadows PS it’s 936, and for Dandenong PS it’s 987. (These are all Melbourne schools.) All these schools score significantly below 1000. In contrast, Brighton PS scores 1064, Richmond PS scores 1171, and Lloyd Street PS in Malvern East scores 1179. All these schools score significantly above 1000.
The pre-service teachers then examined the results of the NAPLAN tests for these schools. On the MySchool website, the “average” score for Year 5 reading is 488. At Deer Park North it’s 461, at Broadmeadows it’s 451, and at Dandenong it’s 450. The teachers were surprised that all these schools scored significantly below 488. In contrast, Brighton PS scored 552, Richmond PS scored 537, and Lloyd Street scored 534. In other words, these wealthier schools score significantly above the average reading score of 488.
I asked the pre-service teachers to plot these figures on a bar graph so that they would get a visual representation of the story. Looking at their graphs, the teachers started to notice a correlation. The correlation was between parents’ wealth and test results – schools in poorer areas had lower results and schools in wealthier areas had higher results.
However, many of the teachers were still not convinced. Therefore I asked them to find the data for schools they had been to for professional practice. They found some surprising results. While not all schools fitted the pattern, very few schools in wealthy areas had low results.
The pre-service teachers had been in schools where:
• Much more time and energy was spent on reading and maths than on other subjects. The pre-service teachers saw that students’ learning in those other subjects suffered as a result.
• Teachers did a lot of test practice, so children were likely to become skilled at answering test questions. Pre-service teachers noticed that this happened a lot, and were worried about the consequences of children spending time on practising tests instead of on more meaningful learning.
• There were very few students in the school. For example, one regional school had only 47 students in the entire school, a very high reading score at Year 3. I showed the teachers how a small sample like this will generate unreliable data.
• The school asked some students to stay at home on the day of the NAPLAN test, so the lowest achieving students weren’t counted in the test results.
On the other side of the coin, pre-service teachers noticed that, even with good teachers, some schools had poor results. They could see that this may have been linked to a number of factors:
• There were a high number of students who struggled with English, as it was not their first language, and couldn’t understand the test questions. This affected the literacy and numeracy results. The maths tests often ended up being literacy tests because students couldn’t read the questions – their English was not good enough yet.
• Many children came to school hungry and couldn’t concentrate for long.
• Some parents appeared not to value education and many didn’t support their children with homework or reading.
• There was a highly transient population, so the teachers only worked with each child for a year or so before the students moved schools. Therefore the NAPLAN test results largely reflected the work of other teachers, not the ones at the school in which the tests were conducted.
All these factors had an impact on student learning, and couldn’t be attributed to any lack of teacher competence. Consequently, the data being reported did not fairly represent student capability and achievement. The results might have reflected any of the above factors.
Schools might have achieved higher results because they practised for tests a lot, or because they asked less able children to stay home on test day, or because they spent nearly all their time on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other areas of the curriculum.
It may be that schools received lower results because many of the parents were stressed because of poverty. Putting food on the table and paying the rent can be more urgent than helping with homework. If they have to choose, and many poorer parents do have to choose, they choose to feed and house their kids before anything else.
In short, the pre-service teachers learnt that NAPLAN test results don’t give parents the full story. They learnt that there are many reasons to explain why the results tell a story that does not reflect reality.
The most important thing the pre-service teachers learnt was that, in general, children living in wealthier areas get better test results.
The pre-service teachers were greatly concerned that NAPLAN is not doing justice to many students. They were surprised to realise the truth of Teese’s claim that there is “not an even playing field” and shocked to discover how NAPLAN compounds the lack of fairness. Policy makers need to acknowledge that wealth and poverty are making such a key difference to school achievement.