A third of Australian students need extra support, NAPLAN data suggests.

New data from the 2023 National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) paints a concerning picture of Australian education, with one in three students falling behind in critical literacy and numeracy skills.

The latest NAPLAN assessment, the first under a revamped reporting system, reveals that 10 per cent of students require urgent help and struggle with fundamental tasks. Another 23 per cent are underperforming for their age group. 

The disparities in performance are so stark that experts are advocating for the introduction of national phonics tests in year 1 to enable early remediation.

David de Carvalho, CEO of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), highlighted the clarity of the new reporting approach, designed to help educators identify students in need of support. 

“With expectations set at a higher level than in previous years, the new reporting is showing those areas where we need to focus our effort,” he said.

Concerns have persisted for years that the previous reporting system obscured the true state of literacy and numeracy in Australia. 

Glenn Fahey, Director of the Education Program at the Centre for Independent Studies, commented; “With one in 10 students needing additional support and around one in three not achieving at the new expectations level, this is a troubling sign that education systems need improvement”.

Fahey says that the new NAPLAN benchmarks align better with international tests and should serve as a wake-up call for educational systems to address underachievement comprehensively.

The issue of students falling behind early and struggling to catch up was underscored by a recent report from the Australian Research Organisation, revealing that fewer than one in five students who lag behind in year 3 manage to catch up, and even those who do often do not maintain their progress.

Jordana Hunter, Director of the Education Program at the Grattan Institute, has stressed the importance of national testing for phonics in year 1 to assess reading ability and identify students in need of early intervention. 

She says early identification of issues like dyslexia can lead to effective interventions and positively impact students' well-being and mental health.

“A significant driver of poor outcomes in terms of well-being is struggling to read and struggling in class,” Hunter said. 

“It’s not just about academic outcomes. It’s also making sure students don’t start forming a negative understanding of themselves – that they’re not smart, or they’re not a good learner or school is not for them. That’s when things get really rough.”

But some education experts argue that assessment systems like NAPLAN and PISA may not provide the most valuable insights into improving the education sector. 

They suggest that these standardised tests create a data “tsunami” in schools, overwhelming teachers and school leaders with an abundance of data, often leading to a focus on comparisons among students and schools rather than meaningful learning and development.