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Rural students disadvantaged in NAPLAN testing

NAPLAN testing needs to be modified to be less discriminatory for rural students, says the University of Canberra’s Dr Philip Roberts.

In the lead-up to NAPLAN testing next week Roberts, who is also the national convener of the Rural Education Special Interest Group for the Australian Association for Research in Education, said that his soon to be published research shows that some of the questions in NAPLAN are metropolitan-focused and rural students would struggle to understand some of the concepts.

“Previous questions have asked students to write about ‘a day at the beach’ or answer a numeracy question based on a train timetable,” Roberts said.

“Many rural students have never been to a beach or used a train timetable – so how can they be expected to demonstrate their learning in the same way that city kids do."

“We need to ensure that if we are truly interested in the capabilities of our students that we assess them in a way that does not discriminate against them.”

“Statistically, rural students are behind their metropolitan peers and are less likely to complete Year 12, but students often say that Year 12 is not relevant to their lives and future work and they would have to leave town to complete their final year anyway.

In an Australian Association of Research in Education article, Roberts said that rural education is always portrayed as being less effective than its city counterpart.

“The traditional perception of rural education is one of disadvantage. It is seen as something that needs improving. This is because school achievement, completion and access to further study are always measured in relation to the city.

“There is an international body of research on ‘rural literacies’ that shows rich and diverse literacies in rural communities, which are marginalised by standardised forms of schooling and national testing.

“Historically we have come to recognise that some of the things mainstream education assumes as normal are not shared by all. For instance we now understand more about what works for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, working class children, and children from non-English speaking backgrounds. It is recognised these children can have specific educational needs.

Roberts said that we need to find a way to value what rural students know, for instance, about the environment, community and the life cycle of animals. Nowhere in the Australian Curriculum do rural children learn about their rural lives and rural environments. Nowadays the curriculum is itself based on developing skills for the 21st century global economy, which is fine, except this economy has often left rural areas behind.

“For over 30 years we had the Country Areas Program (CAP). In many respects the CAP may have been limited as its focus was on making curriculum enactment relevant to rural kids while not actually changing the curriculum itself. However, even more revealing is its replacement in 2009 with a national focus on (universalised) literacy.

“If we are going to persist with universal NAPLAN examinations, then surely we can develop questions that draw on students’ different contexts and life worlds. Surely we can do better than curriculum based on content. Can we come up with a curriculum based on more universal concepts and allow teachers the professionalism to choose the examples they use to illustrate those concepts?

“Perhaps all teachers should do time out of the city to help them understand that the nation is bigger than the 85% of the population who live in major cities and perhaps city children should be asked to learn from the perspectives of rural children.”  MCERA

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