Literacy and numeracy results are worsening in Australian schools

A new report by the Productivity Commission (PC) has found Australian students are going backwards in basic literacy and numeracy standards.
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A new report by the Productivity Commission (PC) has found Australian students are going backwards in basic literacy and numeracy standards.

At the same time, planned government reforms to improve student outcomes and provide better support for teachers have stalled. Education Minister Jason Clare has labelled the report “damning”.

Here’s what you need to know.

Student results

According to 2021 NAPLAN results, which test students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, there are 55,000 students (5%) who don’t meet minimum reading standards, 42,000 (4%) who don’t meet minimum numeracy standards and 20,000 (2%) who don’t meet both.

These results are generally worse than in 2018. Student attendance has also fallen over this period (even before the pandemic), although school completion has slightly increased.

Achievement gaps

About a third of students who fail to reach minimum standards do not show improvement in later years. The report warns persistent student failures can “negatively affect their feelings about themselves and towards learning”. The Australian Council for Educational Research warns failure to help struggling students reinforces the false message “that they are inherently poor learners”.

Despite limited data, there is already evidence of poor mental health among students. In the last major survey in 2014, one in five 11-17-year-olds reported high levels of psychological distress.

Disadvantage gaps

There is also limited data on learning gaps for disadvantaged groups of students, but the available data suggests these gaps get worse over the course of schooling, not better.

For example, Year 3 students whose parents didn’t finish high school are 1.3 years of learning behind Year 3 students whose parents finished university. By Year 9, they are 3.7 years behind.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students are one year behind non-First Nations students in Year 3, but 2.6 years behind by Year 9.

Teacher strain

As well as deteriorating student results, there is also evidence of significant strain on teachers. In particular, teachers face such a significant administrative and supervision workload that they have limited time for lesson preparation and professional development.

High workload is the leading factor driving teachers away from the profession, which is fuelling a nationwide shortage.

What can be done?

Federal, state and territory governments agreed on a major set of school reform goals in 2018 as part of a funding deal.

The PC suggests these goals should lead to a significant improvement (although it suggests adding stronger goals to improve student wellbeing).

However, four years later, governments have generally failed to progress on what they agreed. The PC recommends governments urgently deliver on the actions they’ve promised, including by setting firm deadlines.

The reforms

The reforms included steps for better data collection and better teacher support.

The steps to deliver better data have generally not progressed. A promised ‘Unique Student Identifier’, which is meant to provide a “new, unique and rich data source” to understand student learning, has not yet arrived. Neither has a proposed formative assessment tool to help teachers tailor learning to individual students.

Some new teacher performance measures have been introduced, but measures to attract more teachers have not.

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