24
Oct
2018

Why some NSW students are a full term ahead of Victorian counterparts

by Peter Goss


Published by The Sydney Morning HeraldWednesday 24 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 (ie learning 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 report card of student progress in NAPLAN, taking account of socio-economic differences.

NSW may not like its report card. The self-styled Premier State was a solid but not stand-out performer between 2010 and 2016. On a like-for-like basis, NSW students as a whole don’t make significantly above-average progress in reading or numeracy, either at primary or secondary level.

NSW does stand out in one area: it stretches advantaged students in secondary schools, particularly by comparison with Victoria. Students at moderately advantaged secondary schools in NSW make three months more progress in numeracy between years 7 and 9 than students at similarly advantaged Victorian schools. But there’s a flip side to this: students at moderately disadvantaged secondary schools in NSW make five months less progress than their southern counterparts across the same two-year period.

It’s likely that NSW’s focus on policies for gifted and high-performing students contributes to some of the difference. In NSW, talented students are systematically identified, grouped and accelerated. NSW teachers receive extra support on how to teach gifted students. So-called “opportunity classes”, and a number of selective schools could be helping to stretch top students.

Perhaps there is something in NSW’s approach to stretching advantaged students that other states can learn from. Or perhaps not; it could also be the case that NSW’s policies that segregate high-performing students into selective schools and classes help high achievers (who tend to learn more when they are grouped together) but harm other students (who tend to lose out once the brightest students in classrooms are systematically taken out).

NSW could learn from Victoria about supporting less-advantaged students. The Victorian Smarter Schools National Partnerships program (2009-2013) was highly targeted toward disadvantaged schools and showed positive results. Victoria also has higher participation in early learning, which has been shown to especially benefit vulnerable children.

The most worrying finding in our report is that 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. Many 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”.

To become an adaptive, constantly-improving education system, we must learn from what works best. 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. We also need more information on teaching practices, 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.