We’ve all used the old saying ’Pigs might fly’ when some one suggests something might happen and we don’t believe that it can.
In some – just a very few, actually – of our discussions with people about Tasmania’s low rate of year 12 completion, and what might be done to improve it, we have got the sense they really wanted to say ‘Pigs might fly’, but were too polite to do so.
The future of our children is too important to let politeness or anything else get in the way of understanding what we can do to ensure they have the same opportunities and advantages available to other young Australians. So let’s take that question on fair and square.
Can we hope, even expect, a lot more young Tasmanians to stay on to year 12 and complete their senior secondary certificate, the Tasmanian Certificate of Education (the TCE)? Have they got what it takes?
One way to answer that question is to look at what other states have been able to do for their young people in senior secondary schooling. But how can we draw a fair comparison between different states? What we need is a measure of students’ capacity for further study, particularly success at year 12, that we can get for all the Australian states. Then we can see where our young Tasmanians are on this measure, and what that evidence suggests we should be able to expect in terms of their year 12 success, compared to that of young people in other states. If they were given an equal chance to do so.
It turns out that NAPLAN scores at year 9 are generally a pretty good predictor of year 12 success. (More precisely: in most states the number of year 9 students who score above the national minimum standards in their year 9 NAPLAN tests, expressed as a percentage of all year 9s, is about the same as the number of students who three years later get their senior secondary certificates, expressed as a percentage of all year 9s.) We have done these calculations for the year 9 class of 2010 and the year 12 class of 2013, using data from the 2010 annual National Report on NAPLAN, issued by the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA). We can also get NAPLAN information for all individual schools in Australia, from the MySchool web site.
In the graph below, the blue (left hand) columns show the percentage of 2010 year 9 students in each state (and the ACT – we could not find all the data we needed for the NT) scoring above the national minimum standard, averaged across the five NAPLAN tests.
We use 2010 because those year 9 students, if they continued full time, would have been undertaking their year 12 studies in 2013. The red bars show the number of year 12 certificates awarded by each state and the ACT in 2013, expressed as a percentage of the year 9 students in each of these jurisdictions in 2010. (Data on the number of certificates awarded comes from the relevant senior secondary authority, like our TQA, the Tasmanian Qualifications Authority, while year 9 numbers come from the National Schools Statistical Collection of the Australian Bureau of Statistics.)
So the red and blue columns are both percentages of the number of 2010 year 9 students, the blue columns the percentage doing well in their NAPLAN tests, the red column – given a few assumptions we discuss in the next paragraph – the percentage going on to get their senior secondary certificates.
Of course not all the students getting their year 12 certificates in 2013 in (say) QLD will have been in year 9 in QLD in 2010. Some 2010 year 9s would have studied their senior years part-time and completed later, just as some 2013 finishers will have been part-timers who were in year 9 earlier than 2010. But unless there are big changes in the rate of part-time study, we can be confident these will cancel each other out. A bit more of a problem will be students who transfer from one state to another between year 9 and finishing year 12, or come to Australia after year 9 and go on to year 12. We assume these figures are not large enough to make much of a difference, but the international students will be boosting the year 12 numbers a bit, mostly in the states with the greatest concentrations of international students seeking university entry, Victoria and NSW.
To deal absolutely precisely with such confounding factors we would need to track individual students from year 9 through to the completion of the year 12 certificate or other ‘destination’. Of course we cannot do that. The estimate we provide is the best that we can produce from publicly available data. (We would of course welcome any correction based on individual student tracking data, such as we understand is available to our Department of Education. But we do not know whether other states have comparable data they would be willing to share.)
The last thing to say about the graph is that we could only get data for NSW on public school students’ year 12 results, so we have used the number of public school year 9 students in NSW as the base for the year 12 percentage. Since 40% of year 12 students in NSW are in private schools, and if in general private schools in NSW have a higher rate of year 12 attainment than state schools, then we can expect there to be a higher percentage of year 12 graduates in NSW from all schools than the graph shows. But the only NAPLAN data publicly available is for all NSW students. So the comparison is not really fair to NSW: NAPLAN% from all schools, HSC% just from state schools. Victoria could also complain that we have counted only VCE graduates, and not VCAL graduates as well, which together might be considered more directly comparable to the TCE. We cannot say whether these factors (which make our year 12 completion % for NSW and Victoria an under-estimate) cancel out the enrolment of interstate and overseas students in these states (which make our year 12 completion % an over-estimate). But they might.
No doubt there are other nits that could be picked, but it is the broad comparative patterns that we are after here. As a general rule, it is possible to argue about the precise detail of what can be learned from a set of data until one learns nothing at all. So let’s accept the limitations of the comparison and not put ourselves in a position where we cannot see the wood for the trees!
With those qualifications, let’s look at the data.
It’s not hard to see that from NSW to SA there is a consistent pattern. The percentage of students attaining the year 12 certificate is about the same as the percentage above the national minimum standard in year 9 NAPLAN tests, give or take a few percent. WA is doing best, with 5% more students getting the WACE than were above the NAPLAN minimum standard in year 9. Year 12 really can be for all students!
As usual, the ACT is on another planet for both NAPLAN and year 12. We should leave it there and not try to draw any lessons from it. The ACT is so different, so small and so wealthy, that we simply cannot assume that if something can be achieved by ACT schools then other places should be able to do the same thing and get similar results – and without assuming that, we cannot draw any conclusions about anywhere else from what the ACT does. Using the ACT as any kind of a model for Tasmania flies in the face of everything we know about the ‘social determinants’ of educational attainment. To do so is simply not fair to our students, and is even more unfair to our teachers.
That leaves Tasmania. The news is good for NAPLAN. About the same percentage of our year 9s were above the national minimum standard as in other states – within a couple of percent of QLD, WA and SA, and only about five percent less than NSW and Victoria. But our year 12 attainment rate was 21% below our NAPLAN success, and about this or more below the other states’ rate of year 12 graduation.
To put that in numbers rather than percentages, the following graph shows how many more young Tasmanians the comparison predicts would have got their TCE if the gap between our percentage of year 9 students above the national minimum standard for NAPLAN in year 9, and our year 12 certificate completion, was the same as the other states.
Again that is pretty stark. If we were as good as even the next lowest performing state, SA, in keeping young people at school and engaged with a program of study that qualifies them for their year 12 certificate, we would have had another 1,211 year 12 graduations in 2013. (We use exact numbers so we can do sums with them but of course that is being ridiculously precise.)
That is more than the total year 2013 graduations from Hellyer (180), Don (190), Newstead (148), Claremont (104), Elizabeth (210) and Rosny (328), with 51 from Hobart (277) as well. To match WA, whose NAPLAN results, remember, were less than 2% better than ours, we would need all of these, plus the rest of Hobart, plus all but 57 from Launceston (431)!
Another way to look at that graph is that if a heap of our students’ families lived in (say) QLD rather than Tasmania, something like 1,500 more of their children would have gained their year 12 certificate.
Could we close this gap? We have been given three reasons why that would not be possible. We find them unconvincing. So before we look at a final graph, let’s lay some furphies to rest.
Some argue we cannot do better because Tasmania is poorer than the other states. But this is no explanation of the NAPLAN/Year 12 gap, because poverty affects NAPLAN results too, so the comparison has already taken some account of this. We can see the influence of poverty on NAPLAN in the difference between the ACT’s and everyone else’s results. (More details about the impact of poverty on NAPLAN results are given in the annual national reports on NAPLAN referenced earlier.)
The same goes for ‘our population is more widely distributed’. Location affects NAPLAN results, so again that factor should not have a big effect on the comparison. And in any case, in SA there is no more than a 2% difference between year 12 completion rates among metropolitan, provincial and remote students, and in WA, students from the bush actually do better! For Australia as a whole the figures are 76%, 68% and 66% for metropolitan, provincial and remote students respectively. (These figures are from the Productivity Commission Report on Government Services 2014, Chapter 4, Table 4A.127. They are for the percentage of young people of ‘year 12 age’ who gain their secondary school certificate or an equivalent qualification.) The location of students’ homes, families and communities is something a school system needs to cater for, not use as an excuse for low performance.
Finally, some people are arguing that we cannot compare Tasmania’s year 12 completion rate with other states’ because our Tasmanian Certificate of Education is harder than the year 12 qualifications elsewhere. The explanation of the difference we have heard is that our year 12 requires students to do more because not only do they need to complete a certain number of subjects, they also need to meet standards of every day adult literacy, numeracy and ICT.
It seems to us that there are number of obvious problems with this argument.
First, if we look at the 2013 Annual Report of the Tasmanian Qualifications Authority, only 110 students who completed the required amount of study did not demonstrate meeting the literacy standard, 166 did not demonstrate meeting the numeracy standard, and 241 did not demonstrate meeting the ICT standard. Of course many of these might be the same students, but even if they are all different students, removing these three requirements would at most have added another 517 students to the total receiving their TCE (3,268). This would not have taken us half way to SA’s level of attainment, relative to their year 9 NAPLAN performance.
Second, the argument ignores the fact that other states require students to choose subjects and attain a level of competence in them that shows they have at least the required language and numeracy skills. For example, to get the WACE from study at school (the rules for TAFE are different) a student must pass four course units from English and related subjects, at least two of the four at year 12 level, and one of the four must be passed with at least a grade C or better; and also take a pair of subjects from the languages side and the science side of the curriculum in year 12. Is it obvious that any of the 517 students mentioned in the previous paragraph would have met these requirements? Similarly, would they have found it easier to gain a C or better in the compulsory English and a mathematics subject in year 11, as required for the SACE? Particularly since, if they had chosen the same kinds of subjects towards their TCE – an English or maths course – they would only need to have gained a pass to have met the standard required by the TCE, without further ado.
Perhaps there is an argument about the ICT standard – although we come back to this below. But we simply can’t assert that Tasmania imposes a requirement for the TCE which is in addition to those of the other state certificates on the basis that we provide an additional route to meeting the standards for literacy and numeracy if a student’s subject choices do not show that they have done so. That would be like saying that if there are two routes from home to school then you have to travel twice as far to get there!
Third, we need to remember that the primary purpose of a year 12 certificate is to attest to the community, including potential employers, that the student has gained certain knowledge and skills – just like a university degree, say a Bachelor of Education. In relation to the certification of a student’s learning, employers are the number one stakeholder. We do not envy the teacher sent to meet with employers to explain that Tasmania is to abandon the TCE requirement for an ordinary adult standard of literacy, numeracy, and the ability to use computers, without constraining subject choices to ensure students have those same competencies.
Fourth, there is an obvious test of whether the TCE is harder than the other states’ year 12 certificates. Find private schools in Tasmania which are comparable to private schools in other states and look at their rates of year 12 graduation. When we did this we could find no difference. We leave it to others to perform the evidentiary gymnastics required to argue that the TCE is harder for state school students but not for private school students.
Finally, if some continue to insist that the TCE is harder than other states’ certificates, that leads to the question of which other state’s year 12 completion requirements they would propose Tasmania adopts – always remembering the importance of ensuring that our certificate has parity of esteem and demonstrably equivalent standards to others nationally. We invite suggestions.
With all that out of the way, let’s try a final graph. This one shows the NAPLAN success (% above the national minimum standard at year 9 in 2010) of the Tasmanian high schools selected for new or expanded provision of years 11 and 12 from this year, compared to the rate at which their 2011 year 10s (2010 year 9s) gained the TCE in 2013. Mostly of course by attending one of the colleges. (This data comes from the Hansard record of the answers provided to the Legislative Council in response to Question 15 of 2014 asked by the Hon. Ruth Forrest. No data was given for Dover. As we understand it, this data comes from tracking actual students.)
The achievement of the other states tells us we should be aiming for about the same percentage of year 12 graduates from these schools as they get students above the national minimum standard on the NAPLAN tests at year 9 – that is, for the red bars to be about the same height as the blue bars.
Now here is a worthy challenge! If (when) the students at St Helens and Scottsdale achieve that, their high schools will have a higher year 12 graduation rate than was attained last year by college students from any Tasmanian high school. For as the data given in answer to the Hon. Ruth Forrest’s question shows, in 2013 no Tasmanian state high school saw more than 63% of its 2011 year 10s gain the TCE. Smithton, Huonville and St Marys will become our fifth, six and seventh top performing high schools, just above Kingston.
Meeting this challenge will not be easy, as we will have to change established patterns of low senior secondary participation and the belief that ‘year 10 is all these kids need’. Perhaps this shift in belief will challenge principals and teachers as much as students and their parents. But we need to accept that – at least a generation ago – all the other states made this transition from ‘year 10 is enough’ to ‘year 12 is for all’, and we can and must do it too.
Since South Australia’s performance is nearest Tasmania’s, its data has been added to the last graph – just to remind us that this is possible, if we help students right along this path, and expect them to succeed rather than put barriers in their way. We don’t like it when the crow-eaters beat us at cricket. So why should we be happy that they leave us behind in school? Let’s turn that around, starting with St Helens and St Marys, Scottsdale, Huonville and Dover, and Smithton.
We owe it to our children not to let them be left behind. How can we look at this data and not see the injustice of continuing to put up with a schooling system which sees so many of our children fail to complete year 12, when their NAPLAN results prove that they have the capacity to do so; and indeed, that they would have done just that if they lived in another state? An injustice perpetrated against our very own children.
This must change, for their sake and for ours. The question is not whether they have got what it takes, but whether we have got what it takes to finally face this issue fair and square, and undertake the reforms that are needed.
Just what those reforms should be will best emerge from open, honest, respectful and evidence informed discussion. It will most effectively be frustrated – at the cost of 1,000 or more students’ futures a year – by a determination to defend the status quo come what may, especially when that aligns with vested interests. And it would be killed by party-political disputation.
Could we all move on from this? Could Tasmania have its own ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ moment in education? Do we have what it takes to face such a challenge, putting the interests and future prospects of all young Tasmanians before our own?
If we do, we will transform Tasmania, now and into the future, in every way that’s most important.
Michael Rowan and Eleanor Ramsay
Comments, criticisms and rebuttals – which we will publish at Education Ambassadors Tasmania – to firstname.lastname@example.org