The latest NAPLAN results are a wake-up call for the whole country. While there has been some improvement in mean scores in Years 3 and 5 since NAPLAN began in 2008, there has been no improvement to speak of in Years 7 and 9. In fact, Year 7 and 9 writing scores have declined significantly since 2011 in several states.
In terms of the proportion of children who failed to achieve the National Minimum Standard (NMS), there has been no improvement in any year in any domain. This is especially troubling because the NMS is extremely low compared with international benchmarks such as the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).
In PIRLS 2011 (the most recent report), 24% of Year 4 students were below the acceptable benchmark for reading literacy, compared with 4.9% of Year 3 students below NAPLAN NMS and 6.9% of students below Year 5 NMS. These NAPLAN percentages have barely shifted in the past nine years.
This suggests that the NAPLAN NMS measure severely underestimates the number of children struggling with basic reading literacy. New PIRLS data were collected this year and will reveal whether this discrepancy still exists.
What is going on? Billions of dollars of extra funding has gone into schools in recent years, especially since the ‘Gonski’ funding package was introduced. Yet there appears to have been little pay off in what should be the core job of schools – teaching children to read, write and do maths. This is because extra funding has little impact on student achievement if teachers are not using the most effective teaching methods in the classroom, where children spend most of their school day.
The NSW government’s Early Action for Success program is an example. Its central literacy program, called ‘L3’, was not properly trialled and tested before being implemented to more than 400 schools across NSW. It does not meet the criteria for evidence-based reading instruction identified in scientific research, including an absence of systematic phonics instruction.
According to the latest published report on EAfS in 2014, as many schools had negative movement in their NAPLAN reading scores as positive. Funnelling more money into programs that are not truly evidence-based will not help children achieve higher literacy levels.
The NAPLAN reading assessment is a broad measure that flags only that a student is having difficulty, but not why. The Year 1 Phonics Screening Check (PSC) proposed by the Australian government earlier this year will be an early marker of which children are struggling with this fundamental skill and which schools are not teaching it well. Since the Year 1 PSC was introduced in English schools in 2012, the failure rate in Year 2 reading comprehension tests has declined by 30%. We can only hope it will have the same effect here.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is senior research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies www.cis.org.au and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project www.fivefromfive.org.au
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