skip to main content
Addressing Australia’s ‘long tail’ of underachievement
Image ©

Addressing Australia’s ‘long tail’ of underachievement

Comment 5 minute read

In a special webinar this week, experts from education research and practice will discuss how to meet the learning needs of the many students who fall behind in our schools, fail to meet year-level expectations and, as a consequence, become increasingly disengaged.

The webinar is part of a series convened by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) to discuss progress in meeting the ‘big five’ challenges in school education, as identified by ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters AO in 2015. One of these challenges was to address the learning needs of students on trajectories of low achievement.  

According to Professor Masters, many children on trajectories of low achievement fall further behind with each year of school, forming a ‘long tail’ of underperforming students.

In a new Teacher article previewing the upcoming webinar, ACER Deputy CEO Dr Sue Thomson says little progress has been made over the past six years in addressing this tail of underachievement.

Findings from the 2018 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that around one-in-five Australian 15-year-olds fail to achieve the international baseline proficiency level in reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy. In the case of reading literacy, this underperformance has increased – from 12 per cent of Australian students in 2000 to 20 per cent in 2018.

Dr Thomson points out that the proportions of low achieving students varies slightly by student immigration background and substantially by student socioeconomic background. Thirty-one per cent of students in the lowest quartile of socioeconomic background failed to achieve the international baseline proficiency level in reading literacy, compared to 10 per cent of those in the highest quartile of socioeconomic background.

‘Socioeconomically disadvantaged students have been and are still disproportionately represented in the 'tail of underachievement' in Australian schools,’ Dr Thomson writes.  

As Dr Thomson explains, disadvantage has many layers. In addition to being at a disadvantage in their home environment, disadvantaged students more often attend schools with a shortage of resources.

‘If the aim of education is to improve opportunities for all students, not just maintain the social status quo, then this is not working,’ Dr Thomson writes.

‘We need to make sure all learners experience a level playing field, otherwise we are at risk of enshrining the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'.  

‘Such soft bigotry leads educators, and education systems, to not have the same expectations of all students, to judge one group of students as less likely to achieve well based on their defining characteristic – be that gender, cultural or linguistic background or socioeconomic background, and so to fail to provide the scaffolding necessary for these students to achieve at the same level as their peers.’

The free webinar, ‘Reducing the ‘long tail’ of underachievement’, takes place at 4pm AEDT on Wednesday 24 March.

Dr Thomson will be joined in the webinar by special guests Anne Hampshire, Head of Research and Advocacy at The Smith Family, and Steven Kolber, teacher and literacy lead at Brunswick Secondary College in Victoria.

Register now to be part of the conversation about improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. ■

Read the full article:
'‘Big five’ education challenges: The ‘long tail’ of underachievement in Australia’, by Dr Sue Thomson, is published in Teacher.

Subscribe to the Discover newsletter

Privacy policy