The pandemic had little effect on the achievement of students in national literacy and numeracy but Indigenous students and those in rural or regional areas were lagging years behind in their learning, new NAPLAN analysis has revealed.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority chief executive David de Carvalho said the 2021 national report, released on Wednesday, confirmed there were no statistically significant changes between the 2019 and 2021 scores, although there was further analysis to be done.
"There is some indication that within some jurisdictions or across the nation there may be movements that might be attributed to COVID, but it's too early to tell," Mr de Carvalho said.
Girls continued to outperform boys in reading and writing, while boys achieved higher scores than girls in numeracy. Boys in year 7 and year 9 were lagging further behind girls in writing, with no changes to the achievement gap since 2016.
Students in major cities fared better than those in regional areas, with the gap widening across year levels in writing.
Indigenous students' achievement was between 60 and 90 NAPLAN points behind non-Indigenous students in reading, writing and numeracy.
ACARA's general manager of assessment and reporting Peter Titmanis said this gap equated to at least two years of schooling.
"Between years 3 and 5, students improve or grow in education roughly around 45 score points and between years 7 to 9 it's slightly less, about 34 points," Mr Titmanis said.
"So you can see there's a huge gap between performance of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and that doesn't seem to be changing much over those recent years."
Mr de Carvalho said the achievement gap for Indigenous students was disappointing and a point for the school system to examine.
"This is why tests like NAPLAN are so important because it does actually provide this kind of information and shine a light exactly on these kinds of issues and it does provide the opportunity to do the kind of deeper dive particularly into school level practices or jurisdictional practices to find out what's working," he said.
Centre for Independent Studies research fellow Glenn Fahey said it was a national disgrace such a wide gap remained between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
"It's absolutely shameful that in our country, we still have such a persistent gap with Indigenous student achievement. And what's disappointing is that I don't see that the Closing the Gap process overall is taking that as seriously as one would expect," Mr Fahey said.
Mr Fahey said the refreshed Closing the Gap targets focused on completion and attainment rather than achievement.
"We know that improving the situation for Indigenous students will improve the life prospects and improve any of those other social indicators that are so important from a policy perspective," he said.
ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry said the ACT system had high expectations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education through the cultural integrity framework and improvements to the Koori preschool program, but more needed to be done.
She said the dedication of teachers, support of families and carers and programs to improve access to technology and resources during the periods of remote learning meant students' learning did not suffer because of COVID-19.
"Teaching our children is a team effort and the team has worked particularly hard over the last two years to make it work," Ms Berry said.
Ms Berry reiterated her criticisms of the national testing program in that it could lead to competition between schools but said it was a requirement of the funding agreement with the Commonwealth.
"Along with other jurisdictions, particularly Queensland, NSW and Victoria, I have pushed for change and reform to NAPLAN testing. The extent of movement forward is a disappointment to me, but I understand what being part of a federation means," she said.
ACARA had yet to respond to the recommendations of a breakaway report commissioned by the three states and the ACT.
Mr Fahey said the widening gap between boys and girls in grammar subjects warranted more consideration and a spike in behavioural and learning difficulties in boys appeared to a significant driver of their underachievement in reading.
"A lot of the time we focus on the gender gap in maths between boys and girls, but the gender gap in those grammar subjects ... is quite a lot larger and something that I think is not given due attention," he said.
Mr Fahey said other data points had confirmed students' achievement hadn't taken a hit due to the pandemic in the 2020 school year.
However, 2021 had proven more disruptive with widespread school closures, which could be reflected in the next round of NAPLAN testing.
The NAPLAN tests were cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19.
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