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NAPLAN paints half of the equity picture

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So you have a school, there’s a number of different creeds, colours and backgrounds from wealthy to not so represented. The NAPLAN scores arrive and the school has generally done well, so that means that the school is winning on the equity front as all the students are performing, doesn’t it?

Yes and no, research out of Western Australia from Glenn Savage at the Uni WA indicates that the NAPLAN data gives an indication of what is happening but is far from a comprehensive picture of student abilities and outcomes.

The problem is that the NAPLAN data is great for broad strokes appraisal and comparison but breaks down once the data is drilled into and, what’s more, tends to obscure other ways of thinking about equity.

Savage and a school principal friend from an inner-city Perth school took a good look at what was happening with regard to equity in the school, NAPLAN results were good while ICSEA scores were varied, the conclusion was that as students scored well, background wasn’t a determinant of success, ergo the school was highly equitable.

“To many of us this seems logical, if a young person’s background doesn’t determine their success or failure then schools must be doing something to level the playing field or provide equality of opportunity.

“This makes sense to us because it has become a dominant way of understanding discussions about equity in schools, not only in Australia but also globally. So whether it is NAPLAN in Australia or the international PISA testing globally an equitable system is now understood, to quote from the OECD, to be one in which a young person’s social and personal circumstances are not obstacles to achieving educational potential.

“By developing standardised tests that can then be mapped against a young person’s background using the ICSEA indicator on the MySchool website there is no doubt NAPLAN has opened a really rich conversation about the background and performance link,” he says.

The data will show that kids from a low socio economic area, or from a rural or aboriginal background are less likely to perform well in NAPLAN than those from a more affluent background. This can help to target policy interventions that would seek to address disadvantage.

“We shouldn’t put blinkers on and let this specific understanding about equity to dominate all others. Just as an example, if we go back to my friend’s school, we dug further into the school’s data.

“In doing so we found some really interesting things, even though background didn’t determine NAPLAN scores at Year 7 when we fast forward to Year 12 we found very clear patterns between background and success.

“Young people from poorer backgrounds in the school, from refugee backgrounds and from indigenous backgrounds were far more likely not to go onto university study compared to their more advantaged peers,” Savage says.

The data found that children from aboriginal backgrounds were more likely to be unemployed in the year after school and were also more likely not to have finished high school.

The research also uncovered significant issues around bullying arising from race which Savage thinks raises significant questions about equitability if it is linked to ideas about inclusion, fairness or diversity.

“When you look at these other data they show us obvious inequities do exist at this particular school and if you broaden the lens you see very similar trends at the national level. These inequities are absent from view when we look at the relation between a young person’s back ground and their performance on standardised test.

“NAPLAN has changed what counts but also what is counted as equity in education and it has done this by privileging a particular version of equity that is easily quantifiable and representable in graphs tables and indices,” Savage says.


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