Two weeks ago was national Literacy and Numeracy Week, a time to recognise schools and individuals making a difference in literacy and numeracy education and to consider future opportunities for progress and reform.
A breakthrough in the last year has been the agreement between Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments to introduce a national literacy and numeracy testing regime to replace the state-administered regimes. While this is a positive development that will finally allow accurate comparison between states and territories, there is still a long road ahead.
State and territory Departments of Education gain a multitude of information on individual students and schools from national literacy and numeracy testing. But they refuse to share it and they allow our worst achieving schools, disproportionately clustered in remote Indigenous communities, to continue to post low achievement rates year after year.
With the exception of Western Australia, Education Departments do not publish information on how individual schools have performed. The Commonwealth reportedly asked the states for information about the individual performance of students and schools but the states refused, argued that identifying data could be used to punish poor performing schools.
The controversy around “high stakes” testing - think of it as testing with consequences - is not confined to Australia. In the United States, the contentious “No Child Left Behind” legislation is up for renewal and neither side of politics is rushing to hold failing schools to account. Indeed, a scathing opinion piece in the Washington Post recently bemoaned a trend towards making excuses for failing public schools and reproached schools systems which boasted of overall achievement while failing their poorest students.
They could have been talking about Australia. We score highly in the International Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) but in some of our worst achieving schools, disproportionately clustered in remote Indigenous communities, few if any children pass the national minimum benchmarks for literacy and numeracy.
Our Departments of Education allow their concern about the stigma that might be attached to schools and students labelled as failing to override parents’ right to know how their child’s school is performing.
In New South Wales, for example, legislation prevents the publication of any school performance data. The NSW Parliament introduced the legislation after Sydney’s Daily Telegraph identified Mount Druitt High as having produced an entire Year 12 cohort in 1996 in which no student had achieved a Tertiary Entrance Rank over 50. What is worse: that children can’t read or write at grade level, or that other people know?
We can make all sorts of excuses for the low achievement of remote schools. But the first step in any solution is to face up to the problem.
The good news is that, while the states and territories have been refusing to make public the extent of the problem, the Federal Minister for Education Julie Bishop and Opposition Spokesperson Stephen Smith have been arguing the case. Indeed, Smith told The Age in June that a Labor Government would ask the states and territories to publish school performance data that compare student achievement in literacy and numeracy and seek to link federal funding to their publication.
If the Australian Government or Opposition want to score a few points with information-starved parents in their election campaign, here are my top three.
First, test all students from Grade 2 to Grade 7 at those schools in which a majority of children repeatedly fall short of the national benchmarks. Snapshots of years 3, 5, 7 and (from next year) 9 are not enough in schools in remote Indigenous communities where children can fall far behind in two years and can move frequently. These are the key learning years for fundamental literacy and numeracy skills and indigenous children in remote communities need these skills to have a fighting chance in secondary boarding schools.
Second, replace minimum benchmarks with performance bands in the National Report on Schooling in Australia. The current national benchmarks represent the minimum literacy and numeracy that children need to progress through school. But there is no magical line in the sand between literacy and illiteracy and the benchmarks do not represent the level of literacy or numeracy that children need to prosper.
Third, publish “value-added” school performance data, or at least make the data freely available to education policy researchers and economists who will happily analyse them. In some Cape York schools, the average child is falling nine months behind in reading for every year of school. Without the data, it is too easy to blame low school attendance rates for the entirety of the shortfall.
The Washington Post asked the right question: “dumbing down tests, winking at students who fail them, giving a pass to teachers who can’t teach and schools that don’t deliver - who benefits from that?” It’s a question that we in Australia need to start asking.