The Black-White Test Score Gap Downunder

(xposted @

Discussing NT schools, the CIS’s Helen Hughes writes:

This week all Australian children in school years 3, 5, 7 and 9 sat numeracy and literacy tests for the second time. The tests are to give Australians an annual snapshot of basic educational progress. The first national ‘NAPLAN’ tests, held in May 2008, showed that 90% of children passed. Western Australia has made the tests available for government schools on the Internet, and Education Minister Julia Gillard has promised that all the 2009 test results will be posted by school.

An overview of the 2008 tests showed that there was no ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Indigenous students in mainstream schools in Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT had the same results as non-Indigenous students.

I find this claim difficult to reconcile with the facts. Looking at the NAPLAN report (15mb), here’s year 7 numeracy:


To put this into more concrete terms, the average score by year 7 Indigenous students is about the level of year 5 non-Indigenous students. (This is true even if you restrict the comparison to metropolitan schools.)

It is certainly true that the black/white test score gap in the NT is bigger than in other states, and Hughes is right to discuss why it might be.* But let’s not pretend away a 2-year performance gap in other states at the same time.

* It’s possible that schools are the cause, but also notable that the NT black/white test score gap is very large in the grade 3 tests too – suggesting that there may also be differences before children arrive at school. Looking at grades 3, 5, 7 and 9, it doesn’t appear to me as though the racial test score gap widens faster in the NT than in other states, which is what a ‘lower school quality’ argument would predict.

Update, 19/5 – Helen and Mark Hughes respond:


Thank you very much for your perceptive comment on Indigenous performance in the NAPLAN results. Yours is the first meaningful comment based on analysis of the data that we have received in two years work on remote Indigenous education.

Our concern has been with the egregious difference between Indigenous performance in remote schools that have sub-standard curriculums, facilities and administration, compared with mainstream schools.

We concur that according to NAPLAN Indigenous metropolitan students on average do not score as well as the non-Indigenous cohort, and that Indigenous students lag non-Indigenous by varying amounts – up to two years in the states/territories without remote / very remote schools.

Differences in average scores between Indigenous and non-Indigenous are not the same as differences in failure rates, although we acknowledge that Indigenous failure rates are also somewhat higher in metro areas.  We concentrated on failure rates as they tend to highlight the percentage of students not getting an education, while the average score tells more about the average quality of education most students receive.

Comparison of Indigenous scores in metro areas with scores for non-Indigenous from matched socio-economic groups would be necessary to give an indication if any difference can be attributed to ‘indigenousness’. For example, in Year 7 Numeracy in Victoria, there were 682 Indigenous students and over 60,000 non-Indigenous students – a meaningful comparison would be with like socio-economic non-Indigenous students within the latter cohort.

We thus do not think that your comments detract from our basic thesis that non-performing separate schools rather than ‘indigenousness’ account for the principal failure of Indigenous education.