The 2023 NAPLAN school test results, released today, show that an alarming number of Australian students are not on track with their learning.

The results are the first to be released since the introduction of the new NAPLAN measurement scale. Results are now reported against four categories. Students identified in the “Needs Additional Support” and “Developing” categories were below expectations for their learning at the time of testing.

About one in three students failed to reach expectations in numeracy, reading and writing. More than 40 per cent of year 3 and year 9 students fell short in grammar and punctuation. All states have considerable room for improvement. In each of the east-coast states, for example, at least 20,000 students fell short of the expected level in year 3 reading. Across the country, almost 100,000 year 9 students fell short in numeracy.

This matters because literacy and numeracy are fundamental life skills, and closely linked to wellbeing and success after school.

Some people might try to explain away these results by arguing that the new NAPLAN benchmark is set too high. Those people are wrong.

The new benchmark for each of the NAPLAN tests is based mainly on what students should have learnt in previous years. And the proportion found to be below expectations broadly reflects what international tests set by the OECD, among others, have long told us.

The 2023 results also cast a damning spotlight on the inequities that persist across Australia’s education system.

Falling short of the benchmark

Students in remote areas, those whose parents who did not complete high school, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are more likely to fall short of the benchmark. For example, 56 per cent of year 9 remote students were below expectations in reading, compared to 31 per cent of metropolitan students. And in every state, more than half of students whose parents have no paid work fell short of the benchmark in numeracy.

Many factors that influence learning are beyond the control of educators. But within school, the most important factor is the quality of teaching that students receive. There is only so much governments can do to boost teaching quality and get more students back on track.

Every teacher in every classroom must be equipped with the knowledge and tools for great teaching day in and day out. This includes clearer guidance on evidence-backed teaching practices. Education ministers’ recent agreement to reform initial teacher education will go some way to help the next generation of teachers, but much greater investment is needed to support teachers already in schools.

One way governments can help is to ensure all schools have access to high-quality, comprehensive sequences of curriculum materials that build knowledge and skills across year levels. A 2022 Grattan Institute survey of more than 2200 Australian teachers and school leaders found that only 15 per cent of teachers had access to such materials for all the subjects they teach.

Australian teachers deserve world-class materials to help them plan, just as their students deserve to be taught with world-class materials. Establishing an independent body to quality-assure comprehensive sequences of curriculum materials would give schools confidence that any materials they select are grounded in evidence, rather than educational fads, vague promises or glossy marketing.

The proportion found to be below expectations broadly reflects what international tests set by the OECD, among others, have long told us.

Given NAPLAN’s sobering results, it is also clear much more needs to be done to identify struggling students early. It is too late to wait until the year 3 NAPLAN tests to find out that one in three students has failed to meet expectations.

As a first step, education ministers should introduce a nationally consistent year 1 phonics check, to systematically identify students who struggle with essential early literacy skills. England adopted this approach in 2012, and its reading results have improved markedly since.

International research also shows the benefits of targeted intervention for struggling students through an “extra dose” of teaching, such as small-group tutoring. There is also good evidence that well-designed and well-implemented technology programs – such as digital tutors that provide practice in reading and maths – can help students who are not on track. Australia’s education ministers should fund rigorous evaluations to identify the best such programs.

The 2023 NAPLAN results are a warning sign that education ministers cannot ignore. They must act now to prevent more students falling through the gaps.

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