NAPLAN analysis points out policy gaps

by Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann

Published by The Age, Tuesday 22 March

Learning gaps between Australian students of different backgrounds are too wide. The Grattan Institute’s new analysis of NAPLAN data suggests that the gaps are not only much wider than previously thought, but grow wider as students move through school, with bright kids in disadvantaged schools losing out the most.

Slow progress during school leads, not surprisingly, to worse outcomes: weaker skills when students leave school, and fewer opportunities in study and work later on. The very poor learning progress of some Australian children should be a first-order priority. Yet some politicians seem to want to talk about everything except whether our kids are learning the skills they need. In part, we struggle to talk about learning gaps because it is hard to understand how big they are.

NAPLAN (the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) is a powerful tool. It allows policymakers to measure students’ achievement in core literacy and numeracy skills, and it provides data on the progress students make as they move through school, at years 3, 5, 7 and 9. One of NAPLAN’s great innovations is that results can be compared across time: the same score represents the same level of skill, regardless of what year the test was taken or what grade the student was in.

But the rich data we collect using NAPLAN does not help as much as it should. In practice, it is hard to compare different groups of students using the NAPLAN points scale. What does it mean if year 7 students in remote areas score 40 NAPLAN points below their inner-city peers? Are they one year behind, or two? Does a 40-point gap even mean the same thing in year 7 as it does in year 5 or 9?

The way we measure learning is vitally important. Without meaningful comparisons, we can lose sight of how far behind some students really are.
The Grattan Institute’s report, Widening gaps: What NAPLAN tells us about student progress, introduces a new time-based measure, “years of progress”, designed to make meaningful comparisons more simple. 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, and how far apart they are. The approach resembles that used in cycling road races, where gaps between riders are measured in minutes and seconds, not metres. Time gaps are more meaningful than distance if some riders are on the flat while others are grinding up a steep hill.

Many students who fall behind have parents with low levels of education. The gap between students of parents with low and those with high education grows from 10 months in year 3 to more than two 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.

Bright kids in disadvantaged schools show the biggest losses, making 2½ years less progress by year 9 than students with similar capabilities in more advantaged schools.

Australia prides itself on giving everyone a fair go. But there’s nothing fair about an education system that allows disadvantaged students to fall further behind their peers with each year of school.

These alarming gaps are not necessarily a reflection on our schools. Our findings don’t isolate the specific impacts of individual schools. Indeed, many schools across the country are achieving remarkable results with students from low-education backgrounds.

But at the system-wide level, changes must be made. Our report shows that in a typical year 9 class, the top students can be more than seven years ahead of the bottom students. 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. It is hard to aim high when the bar is set low.

Policymakers should act on these new findings.

First, student progress and learning gaps should be put at the centre of schools policy, and used to set system priorities.

Second, policymakers should give schools better support to target teaching to each child’s needs. Without targeted teaching, the top students will be bored and the bottom students will be confused.

And third, given the very large gaps, policy leaders must work harder to improve the progress of disadvantaged students. A good school education helps a young person stand on their own two feet as an adult, and the benefits ripple through future generations.

There is nothing more important to the future of Australia than the education that we provide to our children. Read carefully, the data shows which groups of students are making good learning progress, and which are not. We just have to listen to what NAPLAN’s telling us, and be prepared to act.