There is no question that COVID-19 impacted the academic performance of Australian students.
You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Almost every report of NAPLAN data last December told a different story. That there was no significant difference between 2019 and 2021. That the results remained stable, despite fundamental shifts to the learning environment of students across Australia.
But when you separate the NAPLAN data into various demographic groups*, two things become clear: COVID-19 did, in fact, have an impact on student performance - and perhaps more importantly, we can learn from this data and create opportunities to improve Australia's education system, particularly when it comes to support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Take Indigenous Year 9 students, for example - the group that experienced the most significant decline in NAPLAN outcomes between 2019 and 2021 of any school year tested.
This decline was more significant than for non-Indigenous students. But that's not all: this decline in outcomes only applied to states with harder and longer lockdowns. In states with softer or no lockdowns during the 2021 testing period, specifically Western Australia and the Northern Territory, Year 9 NAPLAN results actually improved for all students. And the greatest improvement in outcomes was amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
It might come as no surprise that lockdowns impacted student performance. But what's really interesting is the prominence and variability of Year 9 data.
Here's why - attendance at high school for Indigenous students peaks when they are in year 9. After that, there's a steady decline. Census data shows 86 per cent and 83 per cent of Indigenous 14- and 15-year-olds, respectively, attend secondary school, which falls to 73 per cent of 16-year-olds, 55 per cent of 17-year-olds and 16 per cent of 18-year-olds.
Aurora's own insights reflect a similar trend. We surveyed students in our high school program, an intensive student-centred support program, and found that the number of students who are confident they'll achieve their goals declines by almost 7 per cent in years 9 and 10. If they can stay the course, this confidence picks back up in year 11, but the middle years remain a critical drop-off point.
For all students, but particularly Indigenous students, something happens in year 9, and more and more data is telling us to pay attention.
There are clear indicators of what works when it comes to building Indigenous academic resilience and targeting these critical drop off points - indicators that need to be a priority if we're to permanently bridge today's reality with the vast potential of Indigenous students.
Tutoring is a good place to start. Tutoring is more than a transactional transfer of knowledge - it's a learning relationship that sits outside the education system. In 2020, the Grattan Institute found that tutoring was one of the most effective ways to support disadvantaged students. At Aurora, we experienced a 253 per cent increase in Indigenous high school students requesting tutoring between 2019 and 2021. We know that tutoring is one of the most efficient and effective ways to address the educational gap for disadvantaged students caused by the pandemic, but there's no long-term, national plan in place to make this happen.
We've seen the COVID Intensive Learning Support Program rolled out in NSW with varying levels of success, and the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme, better known as ITAS, having a sustained impact on the outcomes of Indigenous university students. But these efforts fail to target the critical drop off points of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students, and implement meaningful and sustainable steps to support school completion.
Connection to culture is critical. Decades of Indigenous-led initiatives in education show this to be true. And while funding in this area is heavily focused on service delivery, there have been no resources dedicated to these services to capture data about what works. There are enough leads to justify an increased investment in this area.
For example, a 2021 study by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation found that connection to culture, language and heritage was a key driver behind Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students' successful HSC attainment. The study also found that Indigenous students in years 7 to 9 who "feel good about their culture" while at school were far more likely to aspire to complete their HSC.
Aurora's High School Program, which positions academic outcomes alongside Indigenous cultures, has experienced similar results, with double year 12 completion, triple ATAR attainment and double transition to university compared to Indigenous students Australia-wide. In fact, while we are hearing anecdotally that large numbers of Indigenous students in NSW have not returned to school post-COVID, 100 per cent of our high school program students in this state went back to school in 2021.
More insights will be particularly useful when considering how the $200 million Student Wellbeing Boost will be implemented by the federal government. Promises of school counsellors, psychologists, and extra funding for camps, excursions and social activities, will no doubt be welcomed by many schools. However, there's a chance this will do little to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students if at least some of these commitments aren't grounded in culture.
And this is the crux of it: we know that if Indigenous students see themselves in the design of the education system, they will be more likely to resonate with it, engage with it, take ownership of it and succeed within it. But so far, Indigenous perspectives, cultures and aspirations have been absent from too many education policies, programs and institutions.
The small but growing body of work highlighting the importance of culture is a step in the right direction. But what's missing is data that's grounded in Indigenous concepts of success in education - data that connects the dots between Indigenous student aspirations, academic outcomes and culture, and our team is working hard to address this through Aurora's RISE project.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that understanding and learning from data is critical - and there are few areas more critical than Indigenous education.
**Results are based on Weighted Likelihood Estimates (WLEs or scaled scores) and therefore will differ from officially published results in the NAPLAN National Report that are based on plausible values.
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