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PC News - November 2016

Indigenous primary school achievement

In a recent Commission-initiated research project the Commission investigated the factors that contribute to the education achievement of Indigenous primary school students to better understand what might work best to lift achievement among Indigenous students.

Despite a long history of policy attention, there has been a lack of improvement in the literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous primary school students. To gain a better understanding, the Commission analysed Indigenous achievement using recently available de-identified data from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

The data contain National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test scores of primary school students, students’ demographic characteristics, and information about the schools that students attend. This analysis (the first of its type in Australia) was supplemented by a literature review of what might work best to improve Indigenous students’ achievement.

Achievement gaps exist across all levels of remoteness

Indigenous students are both widespread and sparsely concentrated across schools. While Indigenous students make up just 5 per cent of primary school students across Australia, 77 per cent of all schools with primary school students have at least one Indigenous student.

Furthermore, half of all Indigenous primary students attend schools where Indigenous students make up less than 15 per cent of total student enrolments.

Analysis of the ACARA data shows that Indigenous primary school students are more likely to record lower NAPLAN scores, and less likely to record higher scores, than non Indigenous students.

Although achievement gaps are greatest in more remote areas, metropolitan and provincial areas account for about 55 per cent of the national gap in reading scores because that is where most Indigenous students (some 80 per cent) attend school. Achievement disparities remain even after other student and school characteristics that are observed in the ACARA data are taken into account.

Figure 1: Gaps in education achievement increase with remoteness, but most Indigenous students do not attend school in remote areasa,b

  • Year 5, 2014

    Percentage of students meeting NMS in reading, Year 5, 2014 (Comparing indigenous and non-indigenous).  Percentage of Indigenous students.a Excludes 1975 Indigenous students (14 per cent) and 16 454 non Indigenous students (6 per cent) who either did not participate in the reading test or had no defined region.
    b ‘NMS’ is an acronym for national minimum standard.
    Source: Commission estimates based on ACARA data (unpublished).

Differences between students explain most of the variation in achievement

The Commission sought to unpack the factors that explain literacy and numeracy achievement for Indigenous and non-Indigenous primary school students. The study first examined how much of the total variation in achievement was explained by student-level and school-level characteristics (both observed and unobserved in the data).

It found that differences between students are much more important in explaining variation than differences between schools – differences between students explained at least three quarters of the variation in NAPLAN scores for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Consistent with past research, the Commission’s analysis found that, of the characteristics available in the data, students’ own socioeconomic backgrounds explained the largest amount of variation in achievement.

Also important was the socioeconomic background of all students at a school. In addition, the average attendance rate of the school and the proportion of Indigenous students in a school’s enrolment were both relatively important in explaining achievement for Indigenous students.

Despite these findings, characteristics observed in the ACARA data explained less than one third of the total variation in student achievement. Most of the variation that remains unexplained reflects differences between students, rather than between schools.

State and territory data collections contain extra information, such as student health and individual attendance rates, that may be useful in explaining additional variation in achievement. However, these data were not available for the Commission’s research.

Individualised instruction is key to improving achievement

Findings from the data analysis, which highlight the importance of differences between students, mesh with the broader education literature.

The literature emphasises that students have different learning needs that are not readily categorised according to demographic characteristics. The key to improving achievement, for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, is individualised instruction.

Importantly, teachers may need to take certain characteristics into account to effectively individualise instruction for Indigenous students. The data analysis shows that achievement gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are partly due to differences in characteristics that are not observed in the ACARA data.

Possible explanations from the literature include the effects of: lower rates of individual school attendance at the student level; speaking Aboriginal English; and lower expectations of Indigenous students.

The evidence suggests that a culture of high expectations in schools; strong student-teacher, and community, relationships; and recognition and support for Indigenous culture are particularly important to Indigenous students’ achievement. These need to be underpinned by strong school leadership.

Figure 2: Student-level characteristics explain most of the total variation in achievementaa

  • Reading and numeracy, by Indigenous status (Year 5, 2013 and 2014 pooled)

    Figure 2: Student-level characteristics explain most of the total variation in achievement.aExplained student or school level variation is attributable to characteristics observed within the ACARA data. Unexplained variation is associated with unobserved characteristics.
    Source: Commission estimates based on ACARA data (unpublished).

Policy must be informed by context and evidence

Approaches to closing the gap must seek to improve the achievement of Indigenous students in metropolitan and provincial areas, as well as in remote and very remote areas, and across all states and territories.

Policy development should also take into account the observation 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 (such as Indigenous education workers).

A better evidence base and understanding of how to raise the literacy and numeracy achievement of Indigenous students is needed to improve policy outcomes. Improving access to data for research purposes is one method that could help build the evidence base, and this is a subject of the Commission’s current inquiry into the national education evidence base.

The data analysis also suggests that Indigenous students at some schools perform considerably better than expected, given the available data on their characteristics and those of their schools.

High-achieving schools such as these should be systematically and publicly evaluated to shed light, in a cost effective way, on what works best to lift the achievement of Indigenous students. The Commission found that such systematic and public evaluations are currently few and far between.

Indigenous Primary School Achievement

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