Closing the gap: NAPLAN will help improve Indigenous education

For all its faults, NAPLAN is helping Indigenous education. AAP Image/Melanie Foster

Federal education minister Peter Garrett confirmed late last week that education ministers from around the country had agreed to lift national efforts to improve Indigenous education results. Results from the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) are set to become a key indicator of how successful these efforts will be.

But as NAPLAN testing begins in schools this week, the campaign against the tests is set to intensify. In the past, NAPLAN has been criticised for narrowing the curriculum, causing stress amongst students and teachers and not improving educational outcomes.

But NAPLAN is providing crucial information for the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and helping to identify what is working and what is not in Indigenous education. This important success must be taken into account before everyone again decries these tests, or worse, uses the results of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to discredit the job that NAPLAN does.

Extra information

Over the last five months, those of us in education have been poring over the NAPLAN report, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reports trying to understand what these sets of data are telling us.

For the most part, they are doing the job they were designed to do – that is, to provide the education system and education researchers with information about what is happening across Australia and in comparison with the rest of the world.

NAPLAN tells us what is happening. For all the criticisms of what it measures and what it does, it provides a common lens by which to view the majority of students in the system. The results may not be good, they may not be pretty, but they allow us to compare like with like.

This has been very important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education because historically no distinct measures have been available to view what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families knew was happening – their children were not succeeding within these systems.

NAPLAN is a blunt instrument for telling us why the gap exists but it is doing a good job of saying where the gaps are. It provides clear evidence of the gaps in educational achievement and directs education systems to the parts where resources are needed.

Out in the open

Many experts have speculated about the failure of the education system to provide high quality, high expectations education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Much of the more credible commentary and research has been taken on board by governments and education departments, both federal and state level.

Is education disadvantage entrenched in our system? Of course it is. Is education also the most important pathway to ameliorating social disadvantage? Yes.

Given this conundrum, NAPLAN results are only ever going to reveal where the sites of disadvantage are, as long as these instruments keep asking the right questions. Thankfully, the data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ educational efforts are revealed for all to see.

Often the gaps are highlighted, spoken about in what we call “deficit language”. Less is heard about the improvements.

I take heart in the longitudinal data provided in the final section of the NAPLAN Report that show that across all years tested (Years 3, 5, 7 and 9) in both reading and numeracy between 2008 and 2012 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children gained in reading and numeracy achievement at a higher rate than the total Australian student body.

This is a notable achievement for the children, their parents, caregivers, communities, teachers, schools, systems, policy makers and education ministers. But strangely these findings have not been celebrated. For me this says that over the past four years, the concerted measures that are being put in place by the federal and state levels are moving in the right direction.

The beginnings of change

Australia is now a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which addresses individual and collective rights, cultural rights and identity, and includes rights in education. For those of us in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, the declaration provides a much needed framework of a rights-based approach by which to read NAPLAN data, which in turn provides crucial information to guide concerted plans and research needed to improve the quality of education provided to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The biggest obstacle to consolidation of the gains in achievement would be in failing to recognise that the partnership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education experts, families, and communities with education services providers is beginning to bear fruit. For all the seemingly insurmountable reasons that might account for education failure, such as structural racism, poverty, social disadvantage, quality of schools, teachers, or systems, things are moving in the right direction.

I see a future where Australia takes to heart its commitment to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. NAPLAN is helping us know how we are doing.