The recent release of NAPLAN results for 2022 was met with a collective sigh of relief from governments and the education sector after the doomsday predictions of students who are experiencing significant learning setbacks due to the Covid pandemic did not materialize.
While it is undoubtedly a good thing that the damage to our students from the catastrophic public policy failure that has been Australia’s response to the pandemic was limited, the latest NAPLAN findings should surprise and worry us all.
For example, 3rd grade national reading scores in 2022 placed 95.5 percent of students at or above the national minimum standard, compared to 95.9 percent in the previous two tests in 2021 and 2019. Likewise, 3rd grade numeracy scores show th grade had similarly consistent results at 95 percent, compared to 95.4 percent and 95.5 percent in 2021 and 2019, respectively, and writing, just as consistently, at 96.2, 96.7, and 96.3 percent of students or above the national minimum standard.
Based on those numbers, it appears nearly two years of lockdown has made no difference for the Class 3 cohort. The results also suggest that the parents of 3rd graders – who were likely to be working from home during Covid, juggling family commitments, were unskilled and lacked access to usual classroom resources – did as well as her child’s school could have done it.
But how can that be?
With knee-jerk lockdowns in Victoria, often announced with less than two hours notice, teachers have been asked to work wonders and provide a curriculum for parents to teach their children without notice, and achieved this by relying only on the key points concentrated.
A Melbourne prep teacher told the Institute of Public Affairs. class action program about her experiences immediately after hearing that her school had to close due to a short-term lockdown;
‘I gave out heaps of parenting worksheets that focused on numbers, and I made a selection of suitable reading devices for each child and sent them home in folders. It was pretty basic, but I knew it would do the trick. There is a lot in the curriculum that children can do without.”
The 3rd grade NAPLAN results are a testament to the great job that teachers and parents have done and reaffirms once again that fundamental skills are critical to student success.
However, the same NAPLAN findings also highlighted what happens when students are not taught the basics. Of all 9th graders, 23.5 percent are at or below the national minimum standard, and shockingly, nearly 15 percent of 9th grade boys did not meet the national minimum standard for reading.
Federal Education Secretary Jason Clare tried to dismiss those worrying numbers by saying: “It’s not clear if that’s Covid, but I would suspect that’s a big part of it.” Sorry Minister, the standard excuse “Covid has it causes” does not pass the test here.
While the current generation of 9th graders have shown stable math scores every year since they were first tested, their reading and spelling scores tell a different story. The percentage of this cohort who achieved at least the national minimum reading standards in Grade 3 was 95.1 percent, and 94.9 percent in Grade 5, which has now fallen to 89.6 percent in Grade 9. Spelling shows a similar drop from 94.4 percent in grades 3 and 5 to 91.8 percent now.
If the pandemic is responsible for these worrying reading and spelling scores, as Jason Clare suggests, why have these students’ math scores remained constant?
Could it be more basic? Could it be the teaching methods these students have been exposed to since they started school?
This cohort of students was exposed to the widespread teaching method of ‘whole world’ and ‘Inquiry’ approach to learning to read and spell. These methods have been rightly criticized by many as culprits in falling standards because they fail to provide students with the necessary fundamentals and analytical skills needed to understand more challenging language.
NAPLAN is sometimes criticized as a myopic view of a child’s development because it only tells part of their story, and this argument has some merit. What it does offer parents, however, is an independent and objective radar as to whether their child understands the basics, and the truth is that many students just don’t.
Simply pouring more money into education, as some teachers’ unions would like to see, is clearly not the solution. Research from the Public Affairs Institute in Victoria shows that spending on education has increased by 30 per cent since 2014, but critical reading and arithmetic scores have not increased at the same rate.
And Covid is definitely not the culprit the Federal Education Minister would have us believe.
If we learn anything from the pandemic, students need to be taught the basics if they are to have a solid foundation for their future studies. Under pressure to create lesson plans before they were banned, many teachers recognized the amount of unnecessary fat in the curriculum and achieved great results when given the freedom to discard it.
We need to get serious about correcting the curriculum being taught to our children and it is time we got back to basics.
Colleen Harkin is the National Manager of the Institute of Public Affairs’ Class Action Program
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