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My School flaws mask true picture for students with disabilities

The My School website can discriminate against schools which take on pupils with complex needs. AAP/Alan Porritt

The man in charge of the My School website says schools may discriminate against students with special needs because they drag down results.

The head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), Professor Barry McGaw, admits the My School website doesn’t consider how results are skewed when pupils with special needs are included in a school’s literacy results. He is worried some schools may stop enrolling students with special needs for fear of poor literacy results. But this is too narrow a view of the situation.

The discussion of “special needs” has so far focussed on one of the subset: students who have physical or cognitive impairments.

But Australian classrooms today contain students who may be gifted alongside those with learning difficulties. There are students from an array of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Some manage chronic health conditions that may result in frequent absenteeism. Refugees and Indigenous students are taught alongside them. Others may have significant carer responsibilities within their family, and so on.

One of the growing challenges for contemporary educators is creating learning environments to meet this diverse array of needs.

Even more problematic is how reporting systems can adequately capture the performance of schools that have such diversity in their student population.

Most schools, whether government, Catholic or independent, would have a proportion of diverse learners within their community.

Importantly, when a student enrols in any school, they belong to that school’s population.

So reporting on their learning does not skew a school’s data, but simply represents the diversity of children enrolled at that school.

Under the Commonwealth Disability Standards for Education students with disabilities have the right to enrol in educational institutions on the same basis as their peers.

The question as to why some schools have students with disabilities enrolled and others do not has significant legal implications. Is it that some schools still employ discriminatory practices at points of enrolment? Parent advocacy groups would resoundingly say “Yes!”

This does, of course, cause issues with My School data.

School populations in one area may be assumed to be similar based on socio-economic status. But the many other factors influencing student outcomes are not currently taken into consideration.

It is possible that some schools may have a higher proportion of students with disabilities enrolled.

By default, other local school communities may have lower enrolments of students with disabilities.

In this case, perhaps schools could be asked to report the percentages of diverse learners as part of their My School data.

Schools may find this contextual information allows for a truer interpretation of their data.

Indeed, those schools that have selective enrolment processes, such as only enrolling students identified as gifted or high achieving, would also need to declare this for their data to be more clearly interpreted.

At present, with many students with disabilities exempted from literacy and numeracy testing, there is little data to report the achievements of this group of learners.

Many parents of children with disabilities have fought for their child’s right to access benchmark testing of their literacy and numeracy abilities.

Under the Commonwealth Disability Standards for Education educational providers such as ACARA, have a responsibility for providing courses in which students with disabilities can participate on the same basis as their peers.

Providers need to ensure reasonable adjustments are given so that the student can be tested to measure what they have learned. This includes measuring the literacy and numeracy achievements of all students.

The central tenet of recent debate does not question the right of students with disabilities to access national literary and numeracy testing. It focusses simply on the fact that poor performance by these students misrepresents overall school performance.

But not all students with disabilities score poorly on literacy and numeracy measures.

Students with cognitive impairments may have differences in their literacy and numeracy skills in comparison to their same-aged peers. But those with physical or sensory impairments alone are not likely to impact on literacy or numeracy ability.

For many students with disabilities, the provision of reasonable adjustments will ease the impact of the disability without changing the demands of the test.

There are critical privacy concerns regarding the publishing of a school’s performance scores with students with disabilities.

If the overall performance of a school is published alongside results which exclude those with disabilities, then there is a risk of identifying a student’s literacy and numeracy results in small school populations, need to be addressed.

More broadly, the quality of teaching and programs offered and their capacity to meet the needs of diverse learners also needs to be addressed.

It has been argued by reporting the results of students with disabilities, schools would look like they were “not doing as well as you should expect”.

In the diverse composition of classrooms across Australia, those that showed a range of literacy and numeracy abilities would be doing exactly as well as one might expect.

The focus for future research should be on how we can continue to close the gap in literacy and numeracy achievement for all, not attempt to hide the discrepancy.

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