Class Action – NAPLAN Results Analysed; Australian Teenagers Hit A New Low

Dear Reader,

Thank you so much for the wonderful and welcoming responses to my first email to you as the National Manager of the IPA’s Class Action program. Your feedback only strengthened my resolve to speak up for Australian children who deserve a fair, balanced and academically rigorous education – but are not getting it.

Last month, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority released the 2022 NAPLAN comparative national results, which compared the 2022 NAPLAN results with those of previous years to show us how Australian students are tracking year on year.

NAPLAN is sometimes criticised for offering a ‘myopic view’ of a child’s development, and this is true. It does not measure creativity or general knowledge, for example, but what it does is measure the core skills in reading, writing, spelling, grammar, punctuation and numeracy.

It provides parents of grade 3, 5, 7 and 9 students with an independent and objective measure of whether their child is grasping the basics – or not. Although it needs to be remembered that what NAPLAN tests for and analyses is whether our children are grasping the bare minimum skills for reading, writing, spelling, grammar and numeracy or not.

Grade 3 - At or above National Minimum Standard

As the chart above shows, the results for 2022 show that despite two years of interruptions, the grade 3 result for 2022 is consistent with that of years past.

95.4 per cent were reading at or above the National Minimum Standard (NMS) compared to 95.9 per cent in 2021 and 2019

Grade 3 numeracy results remained similarly consistent

No wonder federal education minister Jason Clare commented that the results were ‘better than expected’. He said the horrendous predictions that had been bandied about after two years of interrupted schooling had not come to fruition and that the results are ‘stable across most categories’.

It is a good thing that the damage to students from COVID-induced restrictions has, for now, been limited. But as I will take you through in this email, a closer look at the NAPLAN results raises important questions about whether our schools are focusing on the right issues, and what do long term NAPLAN trends reveal about the state of our education. (Spoiler alert: it is not good.)

What are our schools achieving?

The NAPLAN comparative national results are curious. There is practically no difference in students’ performance before, during and after COVID disruptions.

This is even true of Victoria, where students spent nearly two years attending schools via Zoom. Victorian grade 3 students achieved the best results ever, and ranked first in Australia for both reading and numeracy. They performed just as well as their peers who never missed school.

Here’s the breakdown for 2022:

Victorian grade 3 reading is 96.1 per cent at or above NMS compared to WA’s 95.3 per cent.

Victorian numeracy was higher than WA (VIC: 95.7 per cent vs WA: 94.5 per cent at or above NMS.)

Victorian spelling was higher than WA (VIC: 96.9 per cent vs WA: 96.2 per cent at or above NMS.)

So what does this mean? It means that parents of grade 3 children who were not qualified teachers, lacked teaching resources, were juggling work and childcare (and in some cases lacked computer access or were facing family tensions caused by lockdowns), did as good a job at teaching their children in the previous two years as their children’s schools do, or any school in the country does.

I can hear you ask, how can that be? Here’s how.

Given the random and often immediate decrees to lockdown Victoria, sometimes with less than two hours’ notice, teachers were often asked to provide a curriculum to parents with no notice.

This meant the focus was firmly placed on core things that really matter. Teachers and parents decided to focus on fewer areas, and greater attention was placed on ensuring the core foundational skills were covered. In other words, teachers and parents made sure the 3 R’s were the focus – Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatic.

 A Melbourne-based prep teacher summed up her experience to me like this:

I ran off heaps of worksheets for parents focusing on letters and numbers and I gathered a selection of appropriate readers for each child and sent it all home in folders. It was pretty basic but I knew it would do the trick. There’s a lot in the curriculum kids can live without.

The grade 3 NAPLAN results are a testament to the great job Victorian teachers and parents did. It also shows that the absolute importance of core skills is well understood and appreciated by both parents and educators.

What it doesn’t tell us is whether the skills they are acquiring provide them the scaffolding they need for higher learning. As I show you in my analysis below, it is not.

So how are the older students fairing?

While grade 3 results have been steady, the same cannot be said of students at the other end of NAPLAN testing. The reading results for grade 9 girls show 18.7 per cent are at or below the minimum standard. Even more troubling, the results for reading skills of grade 9 boys are worse with 28 per cent at the minimum or below the NMS.

Think about that for a second – over a quarter of grade 9 boys are either below the minimum standard, or just meeting it. Shockingly, almost one in eight grade 9 boys do not meet the minimum standard for reading.

Minister Clare sought to dismiss these worrying results by saying: ‘it’s not clear whether that’s COVID but I would suspect it’s a big part of it’.

If COVID was indeed the culprit for the concerning reading results, one would expect to see similar results across the other areas tested. But the numeracy results of 2022 grade 9 students have remained consistent through their school life – 95.5 per cent being at or above NMS in grade 3, 95.8 per cent in grade 5 and 95 per cent in grade 9. Previous grade 9 cohorts show similar consistent results.

However, if we follow the reading results of the same group of students, we see a path of steady, disturbing decline.

As the charts below show, the current grade 12s, grade 10s and grade 9s – all showed a significant decline in their NAPLAN reading results between grade 3 and grade 9.

Here’s how the reading results of the current grade 12s fell through grade 3, 5, 7 and 9.

Current Yr 12 - Reading - at NMS

The current grade 10s show a similar declining trend in reading between grade 3 and grade 9.

Current Yr 10 - Reading - at NMS

And the current grade 9s (who were not tested on the 2020 NAPLAN when in year 7) also show a decline.

Current Yr 9 - Reading - at NMS

The data proves that for every cohort, the standard of achievement remains stable in maths but declines significantly in reading by the time students reach grade 9.

It is of paramount importance that we understand what is happening here so that we can decide what to do about it.

What is clear is that COVID is definitely not responsible for the drop in reading skills, as Minister Clare would have us believe. The declining trend in reading results predate the pandemic.

So who’s the culprit?

What I suspect is responsible is the ‘whole word’ approach to reading that has been widely implemented throughout Australian primary schools. The whole word approach encourages students to guess the word through the shape of the letters and surrounding images rather than through the systematic breakdown of letter sounds (or the phonic system of reading).

The ‘whole word’ method has been widely criticised for not giving students the reliable building blocks and analytical skills they need to approach new and more sophisticated words as they get older. It is one thing to tell students to ‘look at the pictures in the story, focus on the shape and size of the word, or use context to guess a word when you get stuck’ when the word is ‘cat’, for example, than when it is ‘catastrophe’ or ‘gentrification’.

In fact, the ‘whole word’ method has been such a colossal failure world over that even its biggest advocate, literacy expert Lucy Calkins, recently rewrote her recommended school curriculum – the US does not have a national curriculum – to add phonics and the science of reading back in. [Read here $]

Many students eventually work out the science of reading for themselves.

We now know that when it comes to early years, our teachers are delivering the same results that under-pressure, home-schooling parents did with respect to reading and writing. We also know students start off with seemingly acceptable performance results, but those results are not sustained. This indicates something terribly wrong with teaching methods and the curriculum in the early years.

What is needed is a ‘less is more’ approach. The National Curriculum should remove cross-curriculum priorities and instead offer a simplified curriculum focused on ‘explicit teaching’ methods, that is, a return to the teaching of phonics and teaching at depth.

I highlighted this overlooked phenomenon of decline in students’ reading and spelling outcomes in advanced school years – and reasons for it – in a recent article for The Spectator Australia.

Just throwing more money into education as some teachers’ unions would like to see is clearly not the answer. Institute of Public Affairs research shows in Victoria, since 2014, spending on education has increased by 30 per cent, yet critical reading and numeracy results have not increased in a commensurate manner.

If we learn anything from the pandemic, it is that students need to be taught the basics if they are to have a solid foundation for future study. Under pressure to produce lesson plans before being locked down, many teachers recognised the amount of unnecessary fat in the curriculum and when given the freedom to dismiss it, achieved great results. [Read here]

International testing confirms declining achievements

I grew up with four brothers and one of them suffered from learned helplessness. He would often shout out looking for help to find something that was typically right under his nose. My mother would often say ‘there’s none so blind as those who do not want to see’.

So it is with ACARA who is responsible for the National Curriculum. They act as if the decline in NAPLAN is an inexplicable surprise, when it is not recent and has been equally exposed by other international and independent bodies.

The OECD’s PISA program (Program for International Students Assessment) measures the ability of 15-year-olds across 78 countries to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge to meet real life challenges. This international assessment is undertaken every three years, and the most recent results available are from 2018.

The PISA results clearly show steady decline in the performance of Australian students.

One in five Australian 15-year-olds reads at a level the OECD regards as ‘too low to ­enable them to participate effectively and productively in life’.

Only 60 per cent of the grade 9s read at a ‘proficient standard’.

Since 2003, Australian students have dropped from:

eleventh place in maths to 29th

eighth place in science to 15th

fourth place in literacy to 16th

The results are definitive and alarming. Our education system is failing to deliver even the basic learning outcomes our children deserve.

The OECD Education and Skills Director Andreas Scheicher says: ‘A crowded curriculum equates to burnt out teachers and a weak education system’. The need, as he points out, is to teach fewer things at greater depth and with greater curriculum integrity.

The education editor for The Australian Natasha Bita has also written about the alarming rate of illiteracy within our children [Read here $] and the link between low results in school and future unemployment. [Read here $]

Thank you for your support

I received an overwhelming number of supportive emails after my introductory newsletter. THANK YOU. My observations and concerns clearly resonated. I am grateful that you have made the Class Action program possible. As one former teacher and Class Action subscriber wrote to me last week:

Your email was refreshing for me to read. At last, I have confirmation that I am not the only person to be outraged and appalled to see what is happening in our education system today and by the changes that I have witnessed over my years of teaching.

The influence of what is taught at school on our children cannot be overstated. The failure of the National Curriculum to provide sound education has significant and long-lasting consequences as we have seen earlier in this email.

What is at stake is both the life outcomes of our children and the future of democracy and freedom in our country.

I like ending my emails with inspiring quotes. So here’s one by John F Kennedy that I’d like you to ponder on: ‘… matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as truth’.

Which is why the Class Action exists – to call out the lies we are being told about our children’s educational achievements.

You too can call out the lies by sharing my email with your friends and family.


Colleen Harkin

National Manager, Class Action Program and Research Fellow