Widening gaps: what NAPLAN tells us about student progress

by Pete Goss Julie Sonnemann

Learning gaps between Australian students of different backgrounds are alarmingly wide and grow wider as students move through school.

The gap between students whose parents have low education and those with highly educated parents grows from 10 months in Year 3 to around two-and-a-half years by Year 9. Even if they were doing as well in Year 3, disadvantaged students make one to two years less progress by Year 9 than students whose parents have more education.

Importantly, the learning gaps grow much larger after Year 3. Disadvantaged students are falling further behind each year they are at school.

Bright kids in disadvantaged schools show the biggest losses, making two-and-a-half years less progress than students with similar capabilities in more advantaged schools.

This report introduces a time-based measure, ‘years of progress’, which makes it easier to compare groups of students. Rather than saying that a group of Year 5 students scored 540 in NAPLAN, we can say they achieved two years ahead of their peers.

The new measure captures in plain language the rates at which students are progressing at different stages of their learning.

The way we measure learning is vitally important. Without meaningful comparisons, we can’t see how far behind some students really are.

In a typical Year 9 class, the top students can be more than seven years ahead of the bottom students, but NAPLAN’s minimum standards are set way too low to identify the stragglers. A Year 9 student meets the minimum standard even if they are reading below the level of a typical Year 5 student.

Policymakers need to do three things: put learning gaps at the heart of school policy; give schools better support to target teaching at each child’s needs; and work harder to improve the progress of disadvantaged students so that every child in every Australian school can achieve their potential.

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