Australia puts too much emphasis on students’ achievement at different points of time in their schooling, and not enough on students’ progress over the course of their schooling. This report provides a systematic state-by-state comparison of student progress in NAPLAN. The results are surprising and should help policy makers identify the teaching and school policies and practices that produce the best results for students.
NAPLAN does not capture everything that matters in school education, but it is the only test in Australia that enables us to compare student progress across every school. Using Grattan’s equivalent year level measure for interpreting NAPLAN, and adjusting for the fact that some states are more advantaged than others, this report reveals important differences in the rates of progress among states and territories.
Queensland is the star performer in primary school. On a like-for-like basis, Queensland primary school students make two months more progress in reading than the national average between Year 3 and 5, and about one month more progress in numeracy.
NSW is great at stretching advantaged students in secondary school, but not so good at supporting disadvantaged students. Victoria is the reverse. Students in disadvantaged Victorian schools make on average four months more progress than the national average from Year 7 to Year 9, while advantaged students could be stretched further.
Northern Territory and Tasmanian schools are perennially labelled as under-performers, but this report shows that their student progress broadly matches student progress in similar schools in other states.
The ACT is the worst performer. On a like-for-like basis, its students make two to three months less progress than the national average in both primary and secondary school.
The most worrying pattern is that students in 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 challenges the idea that high-achieving schools are cruising and make the slowest growth.
While some disadvantaged schools beat the odds, many deliver a lot less than a year’s worth of growth each year. States 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’.
State-to-state differences get less attention than school sector, location or size. Yet these other factors are poor predictors of student progress, once school advantage is taken into account. Knowing whether a student attends a government, Catholic or independent school gives virtually no guidance on how fast they will progress in NAPLAN. Low rates of progress in regional and rural schools are mainly explained by high levels of disadvantaged students. And whether a student goes to a big or small school has little relationship to how well they will learn.
State and territory governments should explore why students make more progress in some states than others, and if specific government policies or programs contribute to these outcomes. Policy makers should collect better data on teaching so they can make the links between government policy, what teachers do in practice, and student progress. States and territories must then learn from one another, while facing up to their own weaknesses and building on their own strengths.
Becoming an adaptive education system means learning from what works best. No state or territory has all the answers to providing the best education for our children.