Widening gaps: the alarming news about disadvantage in our schools

by Peter Goss

Learning gaps between Australian students of different backgrounds are alarmingly wide and grow wider as students move through school, according to
an original analysis of NAPLAN data published in a new Grattan Institute report.

Widening gaps: what NAPLAN tells us about student progress finds that the gap between students whose parents have low education and those with highly educated parents grows from 10 months in Year 3 to around two-and-a-half 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.

“The really worrying thing is that the learning gaps grow much larger after Year 3, so in fact disadvantaged students are falling further behind with each year of school,” says Grattan School Education Program Director Peter Goss.

“Bright kids in disadvantaged schools lose most, making two-and-a-half years less progress than students with similar capabilities in more advantaged schools.”

The report introduces a time-based measure, ‘years of progress’, which makes it easier to compare groups of students. Rather than saying that a Year 5 student scores 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. 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 a flat road, while others are grinding up a steep hill.

“The way we measure learning progress really matters,” Mr Goss says. “Without meaningful comparisons, we can’t see how far behind some students really are.”

The report also 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.

Policymakers need to do three things: put learning gaps at the heart of school policy; give schools better support to target teaching at each child’s needs; and work harder to improve the progress of disadvantaged students so that every child in every Australian school can achieve their potential.

Read the report

For further enquiries: Pete Goss, Program Director, School Education
T. +61 (0)3 8344 3637 E. media@grattan.edu.au