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Research into struggling students highlights need for reform

Research 6 minute read

A new guide to lifting literacy and numeracy levels marks a positive step in turning around persistently negative results for a significant proportion of Australian students.  

The guide and supplementary resources, developed by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) with support from Monash University and the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), promote a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) and provide secondary schools with the means to develop effective plans to lift achievement. 

Declining achievement across primary and secondary school levels in Australia have been recorded in assessments like NAPLAN, PISA and PIRLS.  One in 5 students starts secondary school 3 or more years behind their peers, scoring at or below minimum standards.

The AERO research looks at how to best support students in years 7 to 9 who lacked the foundational literacy and numeracy skills to learn effectively.

It suggests schools that don’t perpetually implement interventions, such as the MTSS, will continue to see students fall behind.   

Survey results point to system weaknesses 

To inform its research, AERO worked with ACER on a Survey of School and Support Staff to examine school practices and experiences.  

The survey found that multiple methods of assessment are being used to identify students entering secondary school who might struggle, there is a high level of school discretion in the use of allocated funding to support them, and 2 in 5 school staff are uncertain that the supports are effective.  

The survey report highlights the critical need for the MTSS but also system reform, with a strong indication that struggling students could continue to fall further behind and that teachers may not be equipped to prevent it happening. 

‘In the absence of specific definitions (around skill levels) and funded targeting to literacy and numeracy programs, it was not clear that schools had a formal framework in place guiding specific decisions about this cohort,’ the report says. 

Without significant intervention by schools, these students were likely to struggle to engage in class, however, ‘the skill disparity might be so great that differentiating lessons for them is not feasible’.

School reflections 

In-depth interviews with principals, leading teachers, teachers and several from non-school support roles were conducted as a follow up to the survey.   

While the sample was limited, it encompassed government, independent and Catholic schools from metropolitan, regional, and, to a lesser extent, rural and remote areas. 

Responses confirmed the difficulties school leaders and teachers are experiencing in responding to the needs of struggling students. 

‘It was not always clear to what extent assessments clarified the level a student was operating at in terms of learning progressions and the … curriculum grade level,’ the survey report says.  

‘This would make it difficult to know whether their in-class differentiation was suitable for a given student based on their assessment results.’ 

Themes emerged in the responses, including a perception of a gap between the expectations of the curriculum progression between years 3 to 6 and years 7 to 10.  

Respondents spoke of students who may be proficient at year 6 not being able to keep up with the high volume of material to be covered in the year 7 curriculum and having that problem compound quickly. 

‘That is, they may be capable, but need more time to understand concepts than is allowed by the requirements of the curriculum.’ 

Compounding the issues, teachers noted a lack of age-appropriate literacy resources across all subjects, saying it was having an impact on student engagement and the time and effort required by teachers to differentiate by creating or sourcing appropriate material. 

What schools can do now 

The Monash University Review identified MTSS as the most effective approach for assisting secondary students that lack foundational skills.  The framework promotes delivering interventions that are known to be effective, in small groups or one-on-one tuition, and ongoing assessment with continuous reviewing of student progress. 

Those schools that do take up the guidance will be encouraged by the results of a Western Australian school – Como Secondary College – that has had a similar interventions program running for 10 years. 

The intensive learning, small-group program for up to a third of students in years 7, 8 and 9 by specialist teachers, has seen around 75% of students re-engaging successfully in the mainstream curriculum after 2 years. 

Overall, the ability of schools to embed the MTSS remains to be seen, with the biggest barriers to providing support being identified by the survey as funding and an inability to find appropriately-qualified teachers. 

Transforming the system  

The survey results support the need for a long-term strategy to overhaul an education system that continues to leave students behind and transform it into one that ensures every learner learns successfully and achieves high standards to meet the challenges of the future. 

ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters AO identified some of the issues in this article in Teacher on equity and access in the curriculum.  

‘Every student is assigned the same year-level curriculum at the same time and is given the same amount of time to work on it,’ he says. ‘All students are assessed with the same tests and examinations (administered at the same times) and their performances are evaluated against the same expectations or achievement standards.  

‘All are then simultaneously given the next year-level curriculum and the process recommences, whatever their readiness.’  

Instead, Professor Masters says a transformed system should be designed to better support teachers to establish and respond to individuals’ backgrounds and current learning needs, including through more flexible curriculum content and structures. 

Find out more:

Implementing Effective Tiered Interventions in Secondary Schools: Survey of school and support staff 

Implementing Effective Tiered Interventions  

Reform challenges in school education 

Building a world-class learning system 

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