Australia’s national education evidence body

Does background determine student achievement?

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Two female students and one male student from different cultural backgrounds reading together in a classroom.

Examining NAPLAN data 2013 to 2019: Part 1

A new analysis of NAPLAN data reconfirms that while students’ backgrounds influence their literacy and numeracy achievement, their results are not wholly determined by socioeconomic background. 

The analysis looks at the results of all Australian students who completed NAPLAN tests from 2013 to 2019 and provides a more detailed understanding of the influence of student background factors on achievement. This research was commissioned by AERO and undertaken by Philip Holmes-Smith, Director of School Research, Evaluation and Measurement Services.  

Identifying the best approaches to support students to develop strong foundational skills in literacy and numeracy is one of the key research priorities for AERO. An important part of this aim is understanding how differences in students’ backgrounds may impact on their literacy and numeracy achievement.  

All students can be high achievers 

Annual NAPLAN reports show that features of students’ backgrounds are related to differences in average achievement. For example, Figure 1 shows that the average NAPLAN results for metropolitan students are higher than that for regional and remote students, however there are regional and remote students achieving very high scores, and some metropolitan students with very poor results.  

In other words, differences in averages do not mean that all students in regional and remote locations have poorer results than all metropolitan students. Students from all backgrounds can be high achievers in literacy and numeracy. Our research confirms this finding and provides more information about the relative influence of different background factors on student achievement. 

Figure 1. Average scores and distributions of Year 3 numeracy achievement for metropolitan, regional and remote students. 

Graph of the findings already explained in surrounding text

We looked at the effect of 5 demographic indicators on the NAPLAN literacy and numeracy results of students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9:  

  • socioeconomic status (SES) of students’ families 
  • gender 
  • whether or not students were from an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background 
  • whether students had a language background other than English (LBOTE) 
  • whether students had moved schools in the previous two years (student mobility). 
     

What else we learned 

The analysis reconfirms a wealth of prior research indicating that SES is related to student achievement. However, the effect of SES on literacy and numeracy performance is not as strong as many people think.  

While average differences by socioeconomic level are evident (see Figure 2), the range of individual achievement at each level overlaps considerably. There are high achievers and low achievers in all groups. 

Figure 2. Average numeracy scores for Year 5 students at four SES quartiles, and distributions of achievement within each group. 

Graph of the findings already explained in surrounding text

We can reach a similar conclusion by looking at the influence of other student background factors on literacy and numeracy achievement.  

Figure 3 shows girls’ and boys’ results differ on average, with girls outperforming boys in reading and boys achieving higher average results than girls in numeracy. However, the range of individual scores is wide and overlapping. This shows that average differences by gender are not a precise indicator of individual achievement. We see the same patterns of average differences by gender, but overlapping distributions, at the subsequent NAPLAN assessments in Years 5, 7 and 9.

Figure 3A. Average achievement and individual scores for Year 3 reading.

Graph of the findings already explained in surrounding text

Figure 3B. Average achievement and individual scores for Year 3 numeracy. 

Graph of the findings already explained in surrounding text

Figure 4 shows the results of students from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds. When looking at a group level, there is a difference in the average achievement level with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students obtaining lower results on average across the different NAPLAN tests and overall years compared to students of non-Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background. However, looking at the spread of achievement scores at an individual level, the range of individual achievement is wide, with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and non-Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students also demonstrating high levels of achievement.

Figure 4A. Year 3 reading: Average achievement and individual scores for non-Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background students.

Graph of the findings already explained in surrounding text

Figure 4B. Year 3 numeracy: Average achievement and individual scores for non-Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background and Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background students.

Graph of the findings already explained in surrounding text

There were only small differences between LBOTE students compared to those with English as their first language, with LBOTE students doing slightly better in both literacy and numeracy. Similarly, there were small differences between students who changed schools and those who did not, with the more mobile group of students achieving slightly lower scores in NAPLAN domains. 

These findings indicate that while students’ backgrounds do have an influence on their literacy and numeracy achievement, these factors do not tell the full story of why students’ results differ. For example, we know that features of students’ learning environments, including the types of instructional practices adopted by their teachers, also play a role in achievement. 

Where to from here? 

These results indicate that supporting all students to achieve, regardless of their socioeconomic or demographic background, is an important goal. The variation in NAPLAN scores across groups of students, shows that high achievement is possible, regardless of SES, gender or LBOTE.  

It is important to note that the effects of several risk factors for underachievement compound for students who have multiple characteristics associated with lower achievement. Some groups may need more targeted educational support than others. Nonetheless, ensuring all students have access to quality education, and maintaining high expectations regardless of background, is vital to supporting students to reach their potential.  

AERO aims to support educators and teachers to implement evidence-based practices to enable equitable outcomes for all children and young people. We are working with early childhood education and care services, schools, and systems to ensure all children have access to a quality education. 

This is the first of a series of insights on educational excellence and equity. This work is based on AERO's analysis of NAPLAN data.

More information

To read more about the findings, see:

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