Australia’s disadvantaged students excel in post-COVID test

NewsDrum Desk
23 Jan 2023

Newcastle, Jan 23 (360info) Students around the world suffered from learning loss due to COVID-19 but disadvantaged children in Australian schools bucked the trend.

A global study on the impact of COVID-19 on schools in 35 countries has found students in Australia and Denmark avoided learning loss.

The World Bank survey found students in other countries suffered, on average, up to half a year's learning loss. It also found students from disadvantaged schools were more likely to fall behind.

But in Australia, new research found students at disadvantaged schools improved in certain areas of study. This was partly due to extra government funding and a keener focus on literacy in the wake of school closures.

In one of the world’s first empirical studies on the impact of COVID-19 on student learning, researchers at the University of Newcastle found students at disadvantaged schools – with an Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA) value of less than 950 – achieved greater growth in mathematics and equivalent growth in reading in 2021 compared with similar students in 2019.

ICSEA is a measure of school-level advantage that accounts for school location, parent education and percentage of Indigenous students. An ICSEA of 950-1050 is considered mid-range, and an ICSEA above 1050 indicates relative advantage.

The soon-to-be-published research collected data from randomised controlled trials between 2019 and 2021.

The first year of the study measured the impact of COVID-19 on student learning between 2019 and 2020. Researchers found no significant differences between 2019 and 2020 cohorts for year 3 or year 4 students, between the ages of eight and ten, in maths or reading.

However, when the data was analysed by school socio-economic status, children in disadvantaged schools achieved less growth in maths while those in mid-range schools achieved slightly more. In the total sample, these differences cancelled one another out to produce no difference overall.

In 2021, students in disadvantaged schools achieved three months of additional growth in maths and the same rate of growth in reading compared to their respective 2019 peers. Students in mid-range and advantaged schools maintained the same level of achievement growth in 2021 as in 2019.

When the pandemic first forced lockdowns and much about the future was unknown, governments and education departments around Australia found hundreds of millions of dollars to put toward preventing students from falling behind.

The NSW Department of Education’s tutoring scheme, launched in 2021, may have contributed to the positive academic results. Its COVID-intensive learning support programme provided funding for schools to employ additional educators to deliver small group literacy and numeracy support for students identified as needing it most.

Funding was made available to extend the programme until June 2023.

However, it has been criticised for not being well targeted. It was also difficult to implement amid a nationwide teacher shortage.

Hard-to-staff schools in disadvantaged, rural and remote areas, where tutoring is needed most, struggled to hire classroom teachers, let alone additional educators for the tutoring programme.

Positive academic results for Australian students during the pandemic could also be attributed to the strict focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools when students returned after periods of remote learning. This “back to basics” focus to the exclusion of sports, assemblies, excursions and other extracurricular activities had detrimental effects on student and teacher wellbeing.

Overall, major concerns about declining academic achievement did not materialise for Australian students in the same way it has overseas.

Researchers at Harvard University found remote and hybrid learning during the pandemic contributed to significantly widening achievement gaps for disadvantaged students across the US.

In this global context, the academic achievement of students in New South Wales studies is cause for celebration. But the challenge to ensure better equity in Australia’s education system remains — there is always more to the picture.

Equity in Australian education remains an ongoing challenge. The achievement gap between students from target equity groups and their more advantaged peers is significant.

Despite improving in 2021, disadvantaged school students in the Newcastle University study started and ended the year well behind their more advantaged peers. In fact, their achievement at the end of 2021 was still below where students in mid-range schools began their school year.

Individual variability is a complicating factor. In a related University of Newcastle study, teachers reported student engagement with learning varied depending on a myriad of factors, including access to technology, family circumstances and individual motivation. And, as has been widely reported, both student and teacher wellbeing suffered significantly during the pandemic and will likely be a long term concern.

There are clear lessons to be learned from the pandemic. Governments were able to find significant funding for programmes and initiatives aimed at improving educational outcomes. Some of these initiatives may have had a positive impact. The question now is whether special funding can be sustained to stem ongoing inequities in Australian schooling.

Importantly, policymakers need to better understand what worked and why. Funding large-scale, high-quality education research is crucial to underpin policy reform. As well as funding for implementing programmes and initiatives that evidently make a difference in student outcomes.

Improvement in academic achievement for disadvantaged students in Australia is a silver lining from the past three seriously challenging years. But there is still a long way to go to remove pervasive and structural inequities and narrow achievement gaps in this country. (360info.org) GRS

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