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Professor Masters says students are currently judged against the same finish line, despite beginning at different starting points.
Professor Masters says students are currently judged against the same finish line, despite beginning at different starting points. - Photo ©Shutterstock.com/Sergey Novikov

Debunking the equity myth in education

Comment 5 minute read

ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters says traditional curriculum and assessment systems are ‘fundamentally inequitable’.

In an article published in Teacher, Professor Masters says the well-intentioned desire to deliver the same year-level curriculum to all students needs a fundamental re-think if we are to improve educational outcomes in Australia.

Professor Masters’ article explains how the current school curriculum and assessment model creates an illusion of providing a level playing field on which every student has an equal opportunity to learn and succeed, regardless of their background.

‘For example, the Year 5 curriculum spells out what every Year 5 student is expected to be taught and to learn. All students commence this curriculum at the same time and have the same amount of time to master its content,” Professor Masters writes.

With every student then assessed against the same year-level standards with the same tests and examinations, Professor Masters says the marks and grades individuals receive at the end of a school year are assumed to reflect how well they have learnt during that year.

‘This curriculum-assessment system is considered ‘meritocratic’ in that it allows every student to compete on an equal footing and to be judged on their own merit,’ Professor Masters writes. ‘Importantly, a meritocratic system is not expected to deliver equal outcomes.’

Professor Masters highlights this with a quote from The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel: ‘Even a fair competition has winners and losers. What matters is that everyone starts the race at the same starting point’.

But Masters points out that, in education, ‘Instead of beginning on the same starting line, students begin each school year widely spread along the running track. Despite this, they are all judged against the same finish line: the year-level curriculum expectations.’

Compounding this inequity, Professor Masters writes, is that students disadvantaged by being assigned a curriculum for which they are not yet ready are often also the students least likely to have access to resources to counter this disadvantage. The common experience of these students is to begin each school year toward the back of the pack and on track to receive low grades.

‘It is fundamentally inequitable to insist on equal treatment when students are not equally ready,’ Professor Masters writes. ‘Equity demands a curriculum responsive to individual needs, not blind equality.’

Professor Masters proposes that, instead of being anchored to years of school, an equitable curriculum would define a common sequence and course of learning for all students while allowing for differences in individuals’ starting points and rates of progress. An equitable assessment system would be designed to establish the points individuals had reached in their learning, as a guide to appropriate next steps in teaching and learning, and would recognise and reward the progress individuals make over the course of a year, regardless of their starting points.

‘Given community faith in the fairness of current curriculum and assessment processes, the common belief that educational outcomes are meritocratic and deserved, the far-reaching life consequences of those outcomes, and the fact that existing inequities are most likely to disadvantage those least likely to question or object, we have a responsibility as educators to redouble our efforts to make equity more than a myth,’ Professor Masters writes. ■

Read the full article:
‘The equity myth’, by Professor Geoff Masters AO, is published in Teacher.

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