OPINION

Busting myths about ACT student performance

The mantra of conservative politicians and commentators that ACT students are “underperforming” and “falling behind” is in danger of becoming accepted wisdom.

Representing as I do the thousands of Canberra teachers who are skilfully preparing our children for the complexities of tomorrow, I see serious dangers if this lazy and alarmist narrative remains unchecked.

ACT is the highest-performing Australian state or territory in all three literacies: science, maths and reading. Photo: Joe Armao

ACT is the highest-performing Australian state or territory in all three literacies: science, maths and reading. Photo: Joe Armao

Students in ACT schools are doing very well. They have always done very well, and all the signs point to them continuing to do very well. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the international sample testing conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), shows that the ACT is the highest-performing Australian state or territory in all three literacies: science, maths and reading.

Indeed, in the most recent 2015 science literacy test, ACT students scored on average 527 points. This is 34 points higher than the OECD average and 17 points higher than the Australian average – the equivalent of six months of learning.

After a decade of generally-declining PISA results across developed nations – a phenomenon that probably tells us more about the shortcomings of testing regimes than student achievement – ACT students are more likely to reach the national proficient standard in all three domains (science, maths and reading). And no students in Australia do better than ours when it comes to the international maths and science tests for years 4 and 8 known as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).

Speaking of testing regimes with shortcomings, there’s the infamous NAPLAN.

Despite the annual panic by some about results, ACT public schools consistently exceed the Australian average.

Much is made of other jurisdictions “catching us” due to our alleged “complacency”. I contend that it’s because for years now the Directorate has joined with the union to emphasise that coaching is inappropriate for these brief snapshot tests, because that takes away from providing a rich education.

I am confident the ACT would have the least NAPLAN coaching in the country, and we should be proud we have resisted such perverse temptation.

Now let’s set standardised tests aside. ACT students are statistically the most likely to participate in schooling, indicating that our kids feel connected to their school, and they want to learn. Students from years 5 to 12 in ACT public schools are surveyed every August about their satisfaction with their schooling.

Overall student satisfaction levels have consistently hovered around the 80 per cent mark for the last five years, and, in recent years, our public school enrolments have been rising faster than anywhere else in the country, by nearly 4 per cent in some years. The 20-year-long shift toward non-government schooling is now thankfully in the rear-view mirror.

The proportion of ACT students being awarded the Year 12 Certificate is more than 80 per cent and above the national average. The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) or university entry results in the ACT are strong by national standards, and they have been getting stronger. Our median ATAR is now up to 77.7 out of a possible 100 – the best in the country.

Experts suggest that year 12 results are a better gauge of achievement than the results in PISA and NAPLAN because students are more intrinsically motivated to try harder, understanding the results have far greater impact on their lives.

Life after year 12 is brighter for the ACT’s 18-year-olds than just about any of their interstate peers. More than 90 per cent of ACT year 12 graduates are in work or further study within six months of leaving school.

The 2018 Post School Destinations and Pathways survey found that 93 per cent of 2017 year 12 graduates were employed and/or studying in 2018, and 85 per cent of graduates found years 11 and 12 worthwhile. Anecdotal comments from lecturers in ACT-based universities suggest our public college system sets our Year 12 graduates apart in positive ways.

ACT schools educate the “whole child”. ACT students consistently rate above the national average in civics and citizenship sample testing and, I suspect it’s no coincidence that as a nation-leading 84 per cent of the ACT’s primary schools offer an Instrumental Music Program, adults in the ACT have significantly higher levels of participation in visual arts and crafts, theatre, dance and music.

But, for all the good news, we do need to talk about equity. In PISA, when adjustments are made for students’ socioeconomic advantage (using a measure which reflects the education level of a student’s parents, family wealth, home educational resources and possessions related to “classical” culture in the family home) the ACT does less well. We can see this in Year 12 results also. There is a considerable gap in certification rates between children of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

The ACT doesn’t have a performance or achievement problem; it, like Australia as a whole, has an equity problem. ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry has rightly identified this issue as the centrepiece of her Future of Education Strategy, based on extensive consultations.

Nobody knows for sure why we have this problem. Is it because the unique urban planning philosophy of Canberra has resulted in virtually all of our public schools catering for the full range of family backgrounds in Canberra, including some families with complex and traumatic life circumstances? (This isn’t a problem for the public system, because we value a socioeconomic mix and the benefits that brings for all students.)

Or is it because so many ACT families bypass high-quality, relatively well-resourced secular public schools to patronise the best-subscribed private religious schools in the country? A rich irony indeed, considering that ACT residents are amongst the least religious people in Australia.

We know private schools have segregated our communities and concentrated disadvantage elsewhere. These schools have attracted a disproportionately high number of families from the top socioeconomic quartile and a disproportionately low number of families from the bottom socioeconomic quartile.

Indeed, budgetary policies of successive governments, territory and federal, have incentivised them to do so. If only conservative politicians and commentators carried on about this actual problem rather than seeking to impugn the exemplary work of ACT educators by creating a mythical one.

Glenn Fowler is the Australian Education Union ACT secretary.