Enough excuses, Yvette, time to try harder 

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“The overall evidence coming from NAPLAN results should be an embarrassment to this government. Toughing it out and making excuses will not help ACT school students,” says political columnist MICHAEL MOORE. 

“TRIES hard. Could do better” is the sort of comment that belongs on Yvette Berry’s report as Minister for Education. 

Michael Moore.

She has now had time to reflect on the disastrous NAPLAN results for the ACT and her defensive reaction earlier this year. Schools returning after the enforced break provides an unusual opportunity for implementing changes instead of making excuses.

In a March press release attacking the NAPLAN data on the MySchool website, Ms Berry argued that the “data reported for the ACT do not present a reliable indicator of NAPLAN performance in the ACT”. Her excuses were lost in the blanket media on COVID-19.

Rather than recognising the overall indications of a system going downhill, Ms Berry’s reaction is to attack the data and to attack the detail. Her argument is about “anomalies in the ACT data”. The nub of her argument is higher socio-economics and a high proportion of public servants mean that interpretation of the scores disadvantages the ACT in comparison to other states and territories.

Rather than basing comparisons on raw data, the method used by the Australian Curriculum, Reporting and Assessment Authority (ACARA) takes these two factors into account along with remoteness and percentage of indigenous students. These four factors together allow a much better assessment of the quality of education for all children regardless of advantage or disadvantage.

The approach of ACARA puts the ACT on an equal footing with other jurisdictions.

Ms Berry considers that comparisons are unfair in such a highly educated population: “65 per cent of ACT students have a parent with a bachelor’s degree or above, compared to the national average of 35 per cent”. However, ACARA is right to take this into account.

The Minister should recognise that schools in other jurisdictions are able to bring their students up to the level of the ACT students despite disadvantage of educational background or socio-economic status. The ACT advantage ought to be harnessed for the best possible educational outcomes for all ACT children.

The ACT may do well in “line honours” in education boasting “top or equal top by mean score in 18 of 20 areas tested in NAPLAN 2019”. It is time to remove the rose-coloured glasses rather than allowing a downhill slide. Whatever action is necessary ought to be taken to deliver the appropriate results across the system for all students. 

Attacking the data reminds me of Big Tobacco tactics. When epidemiologists were finding more and more evidence of the link between cigarettes and lung cancer, the industry mercilessly attacked the data and the interpretation of the data. The intention of Big Tobacco was to focus on any minor anomaly to increase doubt about the overall evidence.

The other tactic used by the Education Minister is to realign the focus to good news. In this case the statement from Yvette Berry identifies “93 per cent of young people who graduated in 2017 were employed or undertaking further study in 2018 – 6 per cent higher than the national average”. This is good news. But, it is also not socio-economically adjusted.

Another attempt to change focus identifies that NAPLAN results are not the most important indicator. Rather, “life outcomes of a student is the whole point of school and the education system”. 

The government has been happy to sing its own praises when indicative results provided positive headlines such as: “Top marks for ACT in NAPLAN tests” (2013); and “Canberra kids shine in NAPLAN testing again” (2014).

The excuses have been on the table for months. Schools are going back after the COVID-19 lockdown. NAPLAN has been cancelled for 2020, giving breathing space before the October ACT election. Now is the time for the Education Minister and the government to lay out a plan of how they intend to improve educational outcomes for all students across Canberra.

The overall evidence coming from NAPLAN results should be an embarrassment to this government. Toughing it out and making excuses will not help ACT school students. Labor has been at the helm of the ACT for nearly two decades. It is time for action rather than excuses.


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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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