Decoding the 2023 NAPLAN results - Podcast

The 2023 NAPLAN school test results released this week show that 1 in 3 Australian students are not on track with their learning.

The results also reveal deep inequities in Australian schools, with more than half of disadvantaged students performing below expectations.

In this special Grattan Podcast, our NAPLAN specialists Anika Stobart Nick Parkinson discuss why Australia is performing so poorly, and what governments should do to turn this around so all students have the literacy and numeracy skills they need to have their best chance in life.


Anika Stobart: Every year, Australia gets an update on the performance of our education system through NAPLAN, Australia’s National School Assessment Program. This year, NAPLAN has been rebooted so that results are now reported according to proficiency standards. This means that for the first time, Australia has a picture of how many students are on track according to their grade level.

And it paints an alarming picture. I am Anika Stobart, a senior associate in Grattan’s education program. And we’re discussing the 2023 NAPLAN results released last week and what governments should do to improve performance. With me is Nick Parkinson, associate in Grattan’s education program, who co authored an opinion piece for the Australian Financial Review on the NAPLAN results.

So welcome Nick.

Nick Parkinson: Hi Anika, pleasure to be with you.

Anika Stobart: So to start us off, Nick, can you tell us about the key findings from this year’s results?

Nick Parkinson: Yeah, so Anika, these results were an urgent wake up call for education ministers and educators across the country. So, on average across year levels, about one in three students were below where we’d expect them to be at the time of testing.

Now that was true across the different tests, so numeracy, reading, writing, and spelling, but in particular, grammar and punctuation was a problem for this cohort of students with closer to 40 percent below where we’d expect them to be. So when we average that up and we look across the country, That’s about 400, 000 students who sat the test and had results that were below expectations.

And that’s really quite a staggering amount. Now, this is concerning because literacy and numeracy, as we know, they’re fundamental life skills. They’re really closely linked to students well being and their success after school. And students who are not proficient in literacy and numeracy. can find it really hard to keep up with the teaching that’s happening in class, which means that unless gaps are closed quickly and unless these issues are addressed for students, students may never catch up.

Anika Stobart: Nick, could you please shed some more light on how these proficiency benchmarks were set and what they actually mean?

Nick Parkinson: Yeah, I sure can, Anika, and you’re right that there’s been a change this year, so it’s worth demystifying that a little bit. So, I was using the words before, below expectations. Now, for the first time, we have students results reported against four proficiency categories.

So, for two of these, for students who’ve met expectations, those categories are called strong and exceeding, if they’ve particularly excelled. For students whose results have been below expectations at the time of testing, those Their results are flagged as developing, or at the very bottom end of the scale, needs additional support.

Now the reason that it’s worth going back to this and reminding ourselves of it, is with the results released in this last week, there’s been some confusion in the media, and I think it’s worth touching on at least two bits of confusion Grattan. One of the categories is called needs additional support.

Now that’s for those students who are well below where we’d expect them to be. Sometimes people see needs additional support and assume that only these students need additional support, or only these students are below the proficiency cutoff, but actually students in the next category are developing.

are also below expectations. So when we think of these students, those students in developing, they may also need support to get back on track. Another point of confusion is that one of the categories is called strong, and that’s a really large category. So for writing for year three, for example, that’s about 67 percent of students.

So, it’s quite a wide distribution of performance and ability. What we’ve seen sometimes is that there’s a conflation between the word strong, which describes this category, and strong performance, but actually the strong category includes students who are below average, who may be performing at the 30th percentile, and a student who’s just scraped past the proficiency cutoff.

and is in the strong category may well have more in common ability wise with a student in developing who’s below proficient than a student who’s in exceeding, which is above proficient. Great,

Anika Stobart: thanks Nick, that really helps. And I think what we’ve also seen is that this new benchmark that they’re using is more in line as well with how international tests are done, like such as those done by OECD and what they kind of set as the proficiency or.

What they said is like the expected level of learning at a particular year level. Now that we know what all these things mean, could you just break down the data for us a little bit more by demographics, for example, because we know that they can vary a lot by according to different demographic backgrounds and geographic locations.

Nick Parkinson: Yeah, that’s right, Anika, and there’s probably some parts of this that won’t be surprising to people who’ve been following what the results have said in the past, because a lot of that is still true with these new results. So overall, the take home message is that there are glaring inequities in the education system, and NAPLAN has shone a light on those.

When we look at the different groups you mentioned, particularly students in remote areas, Students whose parents didn’t finish high school or are unemployed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. These are cohorts of students who are more likely to be below proficient. So to not be on track with their learning, in other words.

Some examples of this. If we look at remote students, over half, 56 percent of year nines were below expectations for reading, and that compares to 31 percent of students in major cities. So that quite a disparity, over 20 percentage points. Similarly, when we look at First Nation students, we really see that the system is failing them.

So nearly two thirds of Indigenous students are below proficient compared to 34 percent of their non Indigenous peers. And I think this is the kind of statistic that should be keeping education ministers up at night. And these gaps are troubling. We really don’t want an education system where students results just depend on their postcode, family background, gender or ethnicity.

Anika Stobart: Wow, those gaps between different demographics are really concerning and not something we want to see going forward. How does it vary according to different states and territories? Yeah,

Nick Parkinson: it’s a good question, Anika, and we do see a lot in the media around this time of year, these, these lead tables by states and territories, we’re kind of comparing which state did the best, which state has room for improvement.

What I would say is that across all states, it’s quite startling how much work there is left to do. So when we look at some of those cohorts of students I just talked about, in every single More than half of students whose parents have no paid work fell short of the benchmark in numeracy. So that, that is all states.

All states have room for improvement. Similarly, when we look at students whose parents didn’t finish high school, more than half are below proficient. So what I’d say is the comparisons between states don’t always account for inequity. And league tables can really mask these troubling statistics for our most disadvantaged students.

Minister Clare, in responding to the NAPLAN results, said they make the case for blistering reform. And I think this is the kind of thinking that all education ministers should have in mind when looking at these results.

Anika Stobart: So what are some of the practical things that Australian governments can do to make a difference for students?

Nick Parkinson: So look Anika, there’s a lot that governments can do and it would be great in 15 years to return to this conversation and have results that say no student is below proficient. Maybe aspirational thinking, but there’s certainly a lot we can do to try and get there. I think for the purposes of this conversation, there’s two things we should focus on.

And the first is that governments should ensure that all teachers have the tools they need for great classroom teaching, day in and day out. The second thing is that governments should support. All schools to embed evidence based approaches to catching students up who’ve been identified as being behind in their learning.

Anika Stobart: Great. All right. Well, do you want to take us through the first point then? Can you give us a bit more detail about what it means to equip teachers with the resources they need?

Nick Parkinson: Yeah, sure thing. And it goes without saying before we launch into this that there’s a lot of factors that influence students learning outside the control of schools.

And I think passing the buck onto schools to fix all of those kind of health and economic inequities is asking a whole lot of schools. But within schools, there is a lot we can do. And what we know is the quality of teaching is the number one factor that will shift the dial for those kids who’ve fallen through the gaps.

So Granada’s done quite a bit of work in this space and in 2021 we surveyed over 5, 000 teachers. What we found is that 9 in 10 teachers say they frequently or always lack the time for great, to prepare for great teaching. And this is concerning because highly effective teaching relies on great planning and we were hearing from teachers things like.

I feel forever guilty for not giving the time that I’d love to prepare in Great Lessons. Now, out of that piece of work and some subsequent work that we’ve been doing over the last few years at Grattan emerged this idea that high quality materials will save teachers time and make a difference for their students.

And when I say high quality materials, I mean all those things that teachers need to bring the curriculum to life in their classroom. Everything from the questions they might ask, to worksheets, to powerpoints, to all the things you might need in a practical class like dance, music, or sport. What having high quality materials means for students is they get these carefully planned lessons that build on what they’ve learned in previous years and bridge to what they’re learning in other subjects in coming years.

And the benefits for teachers are real too, so they save about three hours a week.

Anika Stobart: So it seems to me, Nick, that having access to high quality teaching materials that teachers can use as they need is really crucial. So what’s the role of government here to make sure that teachers can really access good materials and know that this is a quality product?

Nick Parkinson: So there’s a pretty clear case for government intervention here, as you mentioned. Only 15 percent of teachers have these materials for all the subjects that they teach. So what government should do is they should ensure that all teachers have access to the sequence of high quality materials that schools can adopt and adapt.

Now, there’s a few things that are worth pointing out here. The first is government should not necessarily make the materials themselves. Government should invest in them. For sure, but they needn’t necessarily do all the work on their own. They should make sure these materials can be accessed across sectors.

So not just by government schools, and they should also make sure that they’re independently quality assured. The final thing I’d point out is that these materials are best when they’re full sequences of learning teachers already have. Access to lots of stand alone lesson plans and activities, but they won’t cut it to reduce workload.

And they won’t make a difference for students who really need that sequence of learning that builds over time across subjects and across year levels. So Anika, I’ve talked a little bit about this first thing governments can do around equipping teachers with materials. But I know you’ve been doing some research on what governments can do to improve Australia’s performance in reading, and that this is a topic of an upcoming Gratom report.

So what can we do for reading? What can we do for that Year 7 student who gets poor NAPLAN results and is struggling to keep up in class?

Anika Stobart: So the key thing that governments can do is ensure that all schools have what we call a multi tiered system of support to help students who fall behind. So this is essentially a kind of a fancy or technical way of saying that there should be this fail safe approach embedded in all schools for students that aren’t on track to learn.

So for a struggling year seven student, this would mean that yes, they would get really Good high quality teaching in the classroom, but if they’re identified as not being on track with their learning for that grade level, they would get additional support at school. So this would mean, for example, small group tutoring for about 10 weeks and really intensively.

So three to five times a week to really try and get them back on track to where they should be at for that year level. But if they’re still struggling after that, they would get even more support. So this might be one on one intensive tutoring. And so this way, we ensure that students can’t just fall through the gaps.

We don’t just accept that some students just are behind, and that’s just how it is. We can actually do a lot to invest and ensure that these children are able to get the most out of Okay.

Nick Parkinson: So that certainly makes sense, I think, to have this fail safe method in place. And I understand that some schools are doing that already.

What can governments do in this space to help all schools get there?

Anika Stobart: So, yeah, sadly, not all schools across the country have this approach to supporting struggling students. It’s not business as usual everywhere, but the governments haven’t really been doing enough to ensure and support schools to actually put all of this in place because it’s not easy to do and does require a bit of investment.

So what we have recommended in the past at Grattan, and we’ve done a report specifically on this that was published earlier this year, was for governments to Firstly, review our school’s capacity to ensure that they can implement this kind of catch up support system in their school, but also invest in kind of more guidance and resources so that each school doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel on their own.

And if we can get this right, if governments can invest correctly in this, and we’ve seen that they did do this during the pandemic to ensure that. Students didn’t fall behind when they had to miss school or had to do learning at home, but this kind of investment needs to continue. And if we get this right, we can actually go a long way to shifting the dial on student performance in Australia.

Nick Parkinson: Thank you, Anika. So that wraps it up for today but for those who are interested you can read more by heading over to the Grattan Institute website at www. grattan. edu. au. If you’d like to talk to us about the NAPLAN results and what government should do we’d love to hear your thoughts. You can find us on social media Grattan Inst on Twitter and at Grattan Institute on all other social media networks.

All of Grattan’s work is freely available online and supported through the generous donations of folk like yourselves. Thank you again for joining us and tuning in and take care.

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