Fresh, frank, fearless and free

In the latest Melbourne Institute newsletter, Director Stephen Sedgwick highlights the strengths and weaknesses of new education data arrangements:

Recent COAG reforms, however, present an opportunity to significantly improve access by interested researchers to quality data. New national testing arrangements allow each state, territory and school system to deposit the results of each child (together with some important background information regarding each school) in a national database to be maintained by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). COAG’s National Education Agreement requires ACARA to manage school assessment data and publish “relevant, nationally comparable information on all schools” to allow performance comparisons of like schools etc.

Researchers may in future gain access to the underlying unit record data, but only with the approval of the departments of education. The risk is that economists may be excluded from the group granted such access, and would thus have little incentive to learn the idiosyncrasies of unfamiliar datasets in order to establish their credentials for such work. Moreover, officials will continue to control the research agenda, with the risk that only “acceptable” projects (especially ones bearing minimal political risk) will be supported. Yet we need fresh, frank and fearless minds applied if we truly wish to establish how most cost effectively to improve education outcomes for every child, leaving none behind. A less restrictive approach to research could tap into more minds and different perspectives. …

The establishment of ACARA and the new national reporting arrangements present a unique opportunity to establish a quality longitudinal dataset of student test results with supporting background information etc, and an opportunity to introduce reasonably open access to the dataset for genuine researchers, including economists, interested in examining how to improve school students’ outcomes. Properly implemented, this could stimulate the application of powerful new tools for analytical work — for example, to explore links between family or personal attributes, teacher qualifications or methods, school characteristics, and student test performance over time.

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