Fighting for Equity in Education

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New Evidence of Massive Achievement Gaps Between Rich and Poor in Australia

Thursday July 15, 2010

New studies published by academics at Murdoch University show massive achievement gaps between rich and poor in Australia’s schools. Students from low income families in low socio-economic status (SES) schools are nearly four years behind students from high income families in high SES schools in reading, mathematics and science.

The studies use test results from the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) conducted by the OECD in 2003 and 2006 for 15 year-old students to compare outcomes for students from different socio-economic backgrounds enrolled in schools with different socio-economic compositions. The results are summarised in the attached chart.

Students from families in the lowest SES category and enrolled in the lowest SES schools scored 128 points below students in the highest SES family group enrolled in the highest SES schools in mathematics in 2006. This difference is the equivalent of about 3½ years of schooling on the PISA scale. In the case of science, the difference was 142 points, or nearly four years of learning.

The gap for reading in 2006 is not available, but the results from PISA 2003 show a difference of 143 points.

These are massive differences between rich and poor. They reflect the combined impact of family and school SES on student achievement.

The new studies confirm the findings of many other research studies that family SES is a major influence on student achievement. For example, the results from PISA 2006 show that the difference between the average low SES student in a low SES school and the average high SES student in a similar school was 60 points in mathematics and 68 points in science, a difference of nearly two years of learning. The difference between low and high SES students in high SES schools was 52 points in mathematics and 67 points in science.

The results for reading from PISA 2003 show a difference between the average low SES student in a low SES school and the average high SES student in a similar school of 89 points, or over two years of learning. The difference between these students in high SES schools was 86 points.

The studies also show that the socio-economic composition of schools impacts on student achievement beyond that of family SES. The average student from a low SES family enrolled in a low SES school scored 76 points behind a similar student enrolled in a high SES school in mathematics in 2006 and 75 points behind in science. This difference amounts to about two years of learning.

The gap was similar for high SES students. The average student from a high SES family enrolled in a low SES school scored 67 points behind a similar student in a high SES school in mathematics and 74 points behind in science.

In the case of reading in 2003, the gap between a low SES student enrolled in a low SES school and one enrolled in a high SES school was 57 points. The gap between high SES students enrolled in a low SES school and a high SES school was 54 points.

A comparison of the results for PISA 2003 and 2006 shows that the overall achievement gap between low SES students enrolled in low SES schools and high SES students enrolled in high SES schools has narrowed slightly. However, this narrowing is entirely due to a small drop in test scores for high SES students. There was virtually no change in the test results for low SES students in mathematics and science from 2003 to 2006.

Reducing the achievement gap between rich and poor students is the greatest challenge facing Australia’s education system. It represents a major social injustice and a massive waste of educational potential.

The gap is being exacerbated by increasing social segregation between schools. Census data shows that government schools are comprised of much higher proportions of students from low income families than Catholic and Independent schools. On the other hand, Catholic and Independent schools have a much higher proportion of enrolments from high income families than government schools. Moreover, the proportion of students from low income families relative to those from high income families in government schools is increasing while it is declining in Catholic and Independent schools.

The achievement gap between rich and poor is also exacerbated by current government funding policies. Private schools are better funded than government schools despite their much lower proportion of low SES students. According to the National Report on Schooling average total expenditure in government schools in Australia was $10 771 per student in 2007-08, excluding the imputed user cost of capital, compared with $10 826 per student in Catholic schools and $15 576 in Independent private schools. Government schools face greater challenges with fewer resources than private schools.

The wealthiest private schools in Australia have double or more the resources of government schools, yet they receive government funding of $2000 to $4000 per student even though they enrol negligible numbers of low SES students.

Additional government funding per student in disadvantaged schools in Australia is actually less than government funding for the wealthiest private schools. The Federal Government’s new funding program for disadvantaged schools will provide only miniscule additional funding. It amounts to a little over $500 per student which is less than a 5% increase on average government school expenditure per student. In contrast, research studies show that the additional funding needed to get low SES student results up to the average for all students is 2 to 3 times average funding levels.

Increased funding for disadvantaged schools in Australia should be the major education policy priority in the forthcoming federal election. All parties need to come up with better policies to reduce the massive gap in achievement between rich and poor.

The Murdoch University studies recommend a two-prong strategy. The first is to promote greater socio-economic integration, not segregation, in schools. They say that funding policies that subsidise high SES students to attend exclusive schools should be discouraged. The second strategy is to increase funding for low SES schools to provide high quality programs, teachers and additional support services for students.

Trevor Cobbold

Achievement Gaps Between Rich and Poor.pdf

The new studies of the relationship between socio-economic status and student achievement in Australia are:

Perry, L. & McConney, A. 2010. Science and Mathematics Achievement in Australia: The Role of School Socioeconomic Composition in Educational Equity and Effectiveness. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 8 (3): 429-452.

Perry, L. & McConney, A. 2010. Does the SES of the School Matter? An Examination of Socioeconomic Status and Student Achievement Using PISA 2003. Teachers College Record, 112 (4): 1137-1162.

Perry, L. & McConney, A. 2010. School Socio-economic Composition and Student Outcomes in Australia: Implications for Education Policy. Australian Journal of Education, 54 (1): 72-85.

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