Tassie maths scores don’t add up

by Peter Goss

Published in The Mercury, Friday 26 October

Australia focuses heavily on school students’ achievement at a point in time. But the sad reality is that achievement tells us a lot about real estate values, and little about how to improve the school system. Student progress (that is, student growth) gives a better indication of how much a student learns during their time in the classroom.

A new Grattan Institute report provides a state-by-state comparison of student progress in NAPLAN, comparing schools on a like-for-like basis to take account of socioeconomic differences.

Tasmania’s report card may surprise some readers. Tasmania is often derided as an education underperformer.

But when school advantage is taken into account, this was not the case from 2010 to 2016.

This result suggests Tasmanian schools are not, on average, doing a bad job. Rather, they are doing a tough job reasonably well.

The job is so tough because the average Tasmanian school is much more disadvantaged than the national average.

Before taking account of this difference, schools in Tasmania make less student progress than the national average in numeracy and reading, at both primary and secondary.

But after adjusting for differences in socioeconomic advantage, student progress in Tasmania is broadly similar to the national average. In fact, Tasmanian secondary students make significantly above-average progress in writing on a like-for-like basis.

So Tasmania is not a persistent under-performer. But one factor stands out: Tasmanian schools are doing a much better job at literacy than numeracy.

On a like-for-like basis, Tasmanian students keep up with their mainland peers in reading and writing, at both primary and secondary level. They do not keep up in numeracy. The disparity is particularly big for students whose parents have been to university.

This relatively advantaged cohort matches the national average for similar students in Year 3 numeracy, but is about a year behind by Year 9.

By contrast, Tasmanian students from highly educated families are above the comparable national average in Year 3 reading, and maintain or even extend this advantage through Year 9.

It’s not entirely clear why there is such a big difference in the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

One plausible suggestion is that when the senior secondary colleges were introduced, they attracted the best maths teachers, to the detriment of maths teaching in junior secondary.

Given the increasing importance of STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — Tasmania will have to dramatically lift its game in numeracy.

Tasmania’s unique model of senior secondary colleges — forcing most students to change school after Year 10 if they want to continue with their education — may also help explain why fewer Tasmanian students complete Year 12 than in most other jurisdictions.

The most worrying pattern revealed in our report is consistent across all states, but particularly pertinent for Tasmania.

Students in Australia’s low-achieving schools make only half the progress in numeracy from Year 7 to Year 9 as students in high-achieving schools, and 30 per cent less progress in reading.

Most of these low-achievement, low-progress schools are also disadvantaged. This finding challenges the argument that high-achieving schools are cruising and make the slowest progress.

While some disadvantaged schools beat the odds, many deliver a lot less than a year’s worth of growth each year. Governments must find a way to boost learning in these schools if Australia is to reach the Gonski 2.0 goal of “at least a year of growth for every student every year”.

In Tasmania, this is a social and economic imperative as much as an issue of fairness.

To become an adaptive, constantly improving education system, we must learn from what works best. Often the focus is on outcomes, particularly NAPLAN. NAPLAN does not capture everything that matters in school education, but it is the only test in Australia that lets us compare student progress across every school.

But we also need better data on teaching, so policy makers can make the links between government policy, teacher practice, and student progress.

States must learn from one another, while facing up to their own weaknesses and building on their own strengths.

Governments need to investigate why students make more progress in some states than others, so they can identify the teacher practices and school policies that produce the best results for our children.