If any more evidence were needed that the way we educate our children needs comprehensive reform, last week’s NAPLAN results are proof positive that significant and urgent action is required. The results, at once shocking but unsurprising, showed a third of all Australian students fail to meet minimum proficiency standards in literacy and numeracy.

Each year, all levels of government spend around $120 billion on education. Since the implementation of NAPLAN testing, a whopping $662 billion has been spent, yet the 2023 results reveal a system in steady decline.

A disturbing 23 per cent of students fall into the ‘developing’ category and a further 10 per cent ‘need additional support’, which means a third of all students are not reaching the minimum standard. And that is without an understanding of the percentage of students who are at what in old speak would be called a marginal ‘D grade’ and at significant risk of failure. Just 15 per cent of students are exceeding expectations.

The annual NAPLAN assessment results have repeatedly exposed unsatisfactory standards, which are either deliberately obscured or wilfully ignored by governments and the teacher unions. Earlier this year the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) – the body charged with implementing NAPLAN assessments – changed the measurement, levels, and scales of the assessments. While previous results were reported in a scale of ten levels of proficiency, now results are reported in a scale of just four: ‘exceeding’, ‘strong’, ‘developing’, and ‘needs additional support’. This complete reset means NAPLAN results can no longer be measured against previous years’ results or be analysed year on year to determine trends.

A glaring gap in the proficiency descriptors of the performance criteria, particularly those of ‘strong’ and ‘developing’, raises concerns. ‘Strong’ indicates the student ‘meets challenging but reasonable expectations’ and ‘developing’ indicates the student is ‘working towards expectations’ – read failed to meet criteria. Earlier this year, when forewarning of changes to the 2023 assessment measurements, the Chief Executive of ACARA, David de Carvalho, observed what many already knew.

‘One of the issues with the previous national minimum standard was that parents and carers could think that if their child was at that level, then “everything is okay”. But it wasn’t.’

However, the same problem has just been dressed up with new terms. Parents receiving a report indicating their child is ‘strong’ would rightly believe their child’s grasp of the subject matter, and their capacity to manipulate it, is robust. However, the new indicators provide no clarity as to whether their child is barely over the line and in fact at risk – i.e. much closer to ‘developing’ than ‘exceeding’ – and is not secure and comfortable with the subject matter at all.

So, the wide-reaching and misleading descriptor ‘strong’ recreates the very problem ACARA cited as the reason for the overhaul. Coupled with the inability to audit and compare years of crucially important data, it makes one wonder why the changes were made at all.

The results are comparable to the independent international assessment undertaken by the OECD’s Program for International Students Assessment (the PISA program) which measures the ability of 15-year-olds across 78 countries to use their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge to meet real life challenges. If you suspect your average performing child is not as competent as you were, you are right. OECD comparative results reveal the average 15-year-old Australian student today is more than a year behind the average 15-year-old of twenty years ago and is several years behind their Asian neighbours. The most recent OECD results available from 2018 showed just 60 per cent of Australian year nine students read at a proficient standard.

Despite a 60 per cent increase in school funding over two decades, standards have continued to decline. Year after year governments have refused to acknowledge, let alone meaningfully address, the real issues in our education system, and funding is not one of them.

A commitment to core skills attainment in the early years, mandating explicit teaching with emphases on phonics and ‘numbers facts’ is urgently required.

Subject integrity must be reinstated by the removal of the activist ideological agenda within the curriculum that mandates subjects are taught through the prism of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Culture, and Sustainability. Put simply, political correctness and woke ideology permeate every subject at every year level, and our children emerge from the process unthinking ideologues completely unprepared for the realities of the workplace in a highly competitive world.

Initial teacher training needs urgent attention to ensure those at the coalface are proficient in both subject content and in the teaching method required to impart that content, to ensure the success of those in their charge.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare recently said once students fall behind, it’s ‘very, very hard to catch up’. In this he is correct. The appalling decline of our education system has been flagged year after year. Big questions need answering, chiefly: Why do we continue to ignore the very future of our nation?

Merely changing the way we describe the dire situation we find ourselves in only serves to avoid this question and to obscure the real changes urgently required.


Colleen Harkin

National Manager, Class Action Program and Research Fellow