National and international assessments show encouraging progress in beginning to close the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, but more needs to be done to address inequity, says Tony Dreise.
The 2015 NAPLAN report released late last year provides encouraging signs in Indigenous education, but also tells a familiar story of prevailing inequity and sizeable gaps.
On the down side, at least 18 per cent of Indigenous students in Year 3 failed to reach the national minimum standard across reading, persuasive writing, language conventions and numeracy, compared to less than 6 per cent of non-Indigenous students in Australia.
In the Northern Territory, 61 per cent of Indigenous students in Year 3 achieved below the national minimum standard in spelling, grammar and punctuation, while 51 per cent achieved below the national minimum standard in numeracy.
In Year 7 across all achievement domains and for all jurisdictions, the average score for Indigenous students is substantially below the average for their non-Indigenous peers – from 66 score points in reading and numeracy to 88 score points in persuasive writing.
Most concerning, there has been no change in the average score for reading for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in Year 9 reading from 2008 to 2015, which means Indigenous Year 9 students in Australia are about 65 score points behind their non-Indigenous peers in reading.
But there is an up side, and the results point to some encouraging gains by Indigenous students. At a national level, the Year 5 to 7 numeracy gains from 2008 to 2015 for Indigenous students were greater than those for non-Indigenous students. Similarly, Year 7 to Year 9 reading gains were greater for Indigenous students.
In the NT, Indigenous students achieved their best result in Year 5 numeracy, with 46 per cent achieving a score at or above the national minimum standard; and there has been a 17 per cent increase in the average Year 9 numeracy achievement for Indigenous students from 2008 to 2015.
In many respects, the results confirm many things we already know: that educational disadvantage is greatest in remote communities; that parents through their educational and occupational levels have a significant bearing on the likelihood of their child succeeding academically; and that Indigenous children start solidly in the early years of schooling, but gaps generally widen the further they climb the education ladder, a problem that causes but also results from lower levels of school attendance and participation.
NAPLAN is an important measure of student academic progress across Australia, and enables educators and policy makers to see how well schools and education policies are working, but it is has its limitations. Most obviously, it is limited to testing reading, writing and numeracy in only four of 13 years of formal schooling. We know from other standardised testing programs such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), however, that Indigenous 15 year-olds can be two-and-a-half years behind their non-Indigenous peers in reading, maths and science.
Formal and standardised testing like PISA and NAPLAN only provides a glimpse of individual children’s growth and development. It does not measure how children are progressing psychologically, socially or physiologically, nor culturally. It tells us little about their social and emotional wellbeing, physical development, moral and ethical growth, sense of identity, creativity, positive relationships, and enterprising behaviours. Nor does it tell us whether children are happy, confident, resilient, optimistic or socially connected. A broader range of assessment programs are required to ensure that Indigenous and other children are progressing and improving daily, weekly, monthly and annually.
It is only through more holistic measures of child wellbeing and growth that Australia will gain a firmer handle on where resources for schools and other child services are most needed – to meet the demands of schools in terms of quality teaching, school leadership, curriculum delivery and Indigenous teachers, but also to meet the needs of the ‘whole child’ through literacy and numeracy tutors, paediatricians, speech pathologists, counsellors, psychologists, life coaches and Elders-in-Residence.
NAPLAN 2015 once again shows that bridging the educational gap remains an unfinished business in Australia and that business as usual will not be enough. ■
The 2015 NAPLAN report is published on the National Assessment Program website of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.