High socio-economic status, low test scores – ACT schools failing students

New analysis shows that the socio-economic status of Canberra parents, not Canberra schools, explain the above average performance of ACT children in national testing.

The Australia Institute released a report today that exposes the systemic failure of the ACT’s primary education system and offers recommendations on how to rejuvenate the sector.

The Australia Institute report, released today compared the NAPLAN results of twenty-four high socio-economic primary schools in the ACT between 2008 and 2016 and found the government schools had underperformed throughout the period, a result consistent with the findings from the recent ACT Auditor-General’s report.

The report also found there has been a deterioration in the relative performance of both government and non-government schools in recent years.

The report’s authors noted that various excuses have been used to deflect responsibility for the NAPLAN performance in the ACT’s government schools, including that NAPLAN is only one measure of performance and that it only provides a snap-shot.

“With nine years of data, and it showing consistent underperformance, it is time for the excuses to stop,” report authors Professor Andrew Macintosh and Deb Wilkinson said.

The report adds to the Auditor-General’s findings in a number of ways: 

  • it covers both government and non-government schools;
  • it looks not only at the average performance in primary schools but also at the proportion of students performing at or below the national minimum standards;
  • it exposes how the underperformance in the ACT’s government schools is not confined to low socio-economic schools;
  • it provides a full time-series of NAPLAN results in the sample schools over the period 2008-2016, confirming that the underperformance in high socio-economic government schools has occurred throughout the period;
  • it highlights how the relative NAPLAN performance in the sample schools has deteriorated over the past five years; and
  • analyses possible causes of the underperformance.

“The critical questions to emerge from this research, and the report by the Auditor-General, are what are the causes of the apparent underperformance and what can be done to address them?” 

One possibility explored in the report is that there are problems with the index used to identify comparator schools – the Index of Community and Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA).

“While the design of the ICSEA may partially explain the observed underperformance, it cannot explain all of it. In particular, it cannot explain why the sample schools consistently performed better in reading than in other subjects, or why the sample government schools had such a high proportion of students performing below national minimum standards.”

The report found the average proportion of students from the sample government schools that performed below the national minimum standard was 80% higher than the average from statistically similar schools. Moreover, in 26% of cases, the sample government schools had a higher proportion of students performing at or below the national minimum standard than the national average, even though the sample schools are from the top 10 percent of schools nationwide as measured by their socio-economic status.

“The results points to problems in the educational practices in ACT schools. This warrants a public inquiry into the underperformance in the ACT education system.”

“The government should immediately fund a voluntary program to trial the use of best practice direct instruction teaching methods, shown by countless studies to be effective for all types of students.”

“The ACT Government has an opportunity to turn its schools into national leaders and for it to demonstrate what can be done with effective leadership and the employment of evidence-based teaching practices. We call on the Government to seize this opportunity,” Professor Macintosh concluded.

Related research

General Enquiries

Tanya Martin Office Manager

02 6130 0530


Media Enquiries

Jake Wishart Senior Media Adviser

0413 208 134


RSS Feed

Media Releases