Learning gains for literacy and numeracy pilot fills policy gap

By Melissa Coade

Thursday December 9, 2021

a woman tutoring a young teenage boy
One-in-five Australian 15-year-olds are failing to achieve the international baseline proficiency level in reading literacy. (Joshua Resnick/Adobe)

Federal money has been committed to a charity-led program designed to overcome educational disadvantage in Australia, filling a policy gap with outstanding results.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), about one-in-five Australian 15-year-olds were failing to achieve the international baseline proficiency level in reading literacy, and about the same proportion in mathematical literacy and scientific literacy. 

Now a local pilot for one-on-one online tutoring for disadvantaged students, the Catch-Up Learning program, is working to tackle this enduring challenge for Australian education often referred to as the ‘long tail of underachievement’. 

The so-called long tail of underachievement does not only impact the prospect of well-paid and rewarding employment for these children, experts have suggested, but has other serious consequences such as poorer health outcomes and lower levels of social and political participation.

“While raising standards is an important goal in its own right, it is also essential in ensuring that our education system is capable of achieving the aims of the Mparntwe Education Declaration – including ‘providing all young Australians with equality of opportunity’,” Dr Sue Thomson, deputy CEO of research at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) wrote earlier this year.

“Little progress has been made over the past six years (or even 20 years) in addressing this tail of underachievement. In fact, the spread of scores on PISA reading has widened over time – from 261 points in 2000 to 284 points in 2018.”

With a view to targeting children who are likely to be disadvantaged in the long tail of underachievement (socioeconomically disadvantaged students have been and are disproportionately represented in this cohort), about 100 students participated in the Catch-Up Learning pilot this year.

Qualified teachers delivered the online tutoring to 81 financially disadvantaged students across years 4, 5, 7 and 8. Before the program, participants were assessed as being behind the literacy and numeracy skills of their peers. In numeracy, they were assessed as three years behind their year level on average.

Supported by the Smith Family’s Learning for Life initiative, education service provider ClassCover, and the Origin Energy Foundation, the pilot also aimed to address the risk of a widening gap with the onset of significant periods of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is very promising evidence of [the pilot’s] capacity to engage students and support greater than expected gains in literacy and numeracy for disadvantaged students who are struggling in these areas. It appears to offer particular value for students who may have previously struggled to attend school for a range of reasons,” an assessment for the pilot reported.

“Two in five students made above expected progress in both literacy and numeracy. Eighty-six per cent of students showed above-expected progress in either literacy or numeracy.”

On Tuesday, ACER announced that the department of education, skills and employment would provide additional funding to expand a second pilot for 530 students in 2022

Thanks to the additional funding the Smith Family will be able to deliver free computer adaptive progressive achievement assessments in 2022.

“These assessments are designed to help every learner demonstrate progress, regardless of starting points, and allow for even more precise diagnosis of a student’s capabilities,” a statement from ACER said. 

“Tutors will use results to target their teaching to meet student needs – aided by resources in the PAT Teaching Resources Centre, also provided free of charge – and re-administer the assessments to measure learning gains over time.”

ACER’s manager of school assessment services Dr Jarrod Hingston said the council was happy to back the ‘innovative and impactful’ pilot.

“We’re excited to support this program with our PAT Adaptive assessments, and to help make a difference in the lives of students who may be struggling,” Hingston said.

Dr Thomson added that the pilot program had achieved impressive results in a short time.

“Something needs to change in Australian education if we are to improve the learning outcomes of students struggling with disadvantage,” Dr Thomson said. 

“The Catch-Up Learning pilot is a great example of what could be achieved at scale.”


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