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Indigenous Primary School Achievement

Commission research paper

This research paper was released on 8 June 2016. The self-initiated research project was able to access a new national dataset that links information about primary school students' literacy and numeracy achievement and demographic characteristics with information about the schools they attend.

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  • Key points
  • Media release
  • Background papers
  • Data Visualisation
  • Despite a long history of policy attention, no consistent improvement has been made in the literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous Australian primary school students.
  • A better evidence base and understanding of how to improve the literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous students is needed to improve policy outcomes.
  • Access to newly available national data linking student achievement and demographic characteristics with school characteristics permits analysis of a subset of the characteristics thought to be associated with education achievement.
  • Analysis of these data shows a wide variation in literacy and numeracy achievement among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous primary school students. But Indigenous students are over-represented among low achievers, and under-represented among high achievers.
  • Disparate achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is also widespread geographically. While greatest in more remote areas, differences also manifest in metropolitan and provincial areas where most Indigenous students attend school. For example, in 2014, Indigenous students in non-remote areas accounted for 55 per cent of the national gap in reading achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous year 5 students.
  • Achievement disparities remain even after other observed characteristics of students and their schools are taken into account. The reasons for this result are unclear.
  • The well-established result that socioeconomic background explains more of the variation in literacy and numeracy achievement than any other characteristic observed in the dataset is confirmed for Indigenous and non-Indigenous primary school students. Other important factors include the general socioeconomic background of students attending a school and, for Indigenous students only, the average school attendance rate and the proportion of Indigenous students in a school's enrolment.
  • However, characteristics observed in the dataset explain less than one third of the total variation in student achievement. Most of the unexplained variation is due to differences between students (rather than between schools).
  • This meshes with findings from the broader education literature — emphasising that children have individually different learning needs — not readily categorised according to demographic characteristics. The literature suggests that the key to improving achievement, for all students, is individualised instruction.
  • For Indigenous students, the evidence suggests that a culture of high expectations in schools; strong student-teacher, and community, relationships; and support for culture are also particularly important — all underpinned by strong school leadership.
  • Policy development also needs to be informed by context, especially that many Indigenous students attend schools with few other Indigenous students. Arguably, quality teaching will be especially critical to these students in the absence of some forms of support better suited to students in schools with larger Indigenous enrolments, for example, Indigenous education workers.
  • The analysis suggests some schools are punching above their weight — Indigenous students do considerably better than might be expected given their characteristics and those of the school they attend.
    • Insights from systematic evaluation of high (and low) achieving schools could shed light, in a cost effective way, on what works best to lift achievement of Indigenous students.

Background information

Lou Will (Research Manager) 03 9653 2224

Leonora Nicol (Media, Publications and Web) 02 6240 3239 / 0417 665 443

Indigenous Primary School Achievement

In a research paper released today, the Productivity Commission examines factors that influence the literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous primary school students.

Despite a long history of policy attention, no consistent improvement has been made in the literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous students.

The Commission's analysis suggests that there are some schools where Indigenous students do considerably better than expected by analysis of student and school characteristics.

While our research offers some new insights, Governments need to get better at evaluating initiatives to lift achievement through better informed policy.

'Our research suggests that some schools punch above their weight in education outcomes for Indigenous students. Systematically evaluating these schools could help shed light on what works best to lift the achievement of Indigenous students,' said Deputy Chair Karen Chester.

The Commission initiated research analyses a newly available national dataset that links NAPLAN results to student demographics and school characteristics to seek to better understand Indigenous education achievement.

The Commission's analysis indicates that the new data only partly explains gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous student achievement.

'This new dataset is valuable but it only explains about half of the education achievement gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

'This means there are other factors that we can't observe that explain this disparate achievement. A better evidence base is needed to understand how to improve the literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous students,' said Deputy Chair Karen Chester.

The Commission's research also finds that gaps in achievement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are widespread geographically.

'While much focus is on Indigenous students in remote areas where the gaps in achievement are greatest, most Indigenous students actually attend schools in metropolitan and provincial areas.

'Achievements gaps are smaller in non-remote areas. However, because most Indigenous students attend school here, non-remote areas still account for more than half of the national gap in literacy,' said Deputy Chair Karen Chester.

Background information

Lou Will (Research Manager) 03 9653 2224

Leonora Nicol (Media, Publications and Web) 02 6240 3239 / 0417 665 443