New research lifting Aboriginal student results

Questions that connect to Aboriginal students’ local cultural context have been shown to positively impact reading results.

Image: Closing the gap: Aboriginal students' reading results improved when exam questions were tailored to their local context.

Groundbreaking research released today shows the reading gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students could be narrowed by up to 50 per cent by altering how exam questions are culturally phrased.

The research undertaken in and around Dubbo by the University of New South Wales Economics of Education Knowledge Hub, in partnership with the NSW Department of Education, shows that tests that include local cultural context has a large effect on performance in standardised reading tests.

The trial involved 1135 Year 6 and Year 8 students in the Dubbo area of NSW. Half were randomly assigned to a “control group” that took a series of NAPLAN style reading and numeracy tests, and half were assigned to a “treatment group” that took culturally contextualised tests specifically written for this purpose by the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group—the peak body for Aboriginal education in NSW.

These treatment tests closely mimic the NAPLAN tests taken by the control group, but used items and language culturally and contextually relevant to students living in Dubbo. The tests were designed to be equally difficult.

Minister for Education and Early Childhood Learning Sarah Mitchell said engaging students in their education was crucial to their success and this research was helping educators make that happen.

“This research has shown that by changing the context of questions so that students can see their own lives and culture in test questions, we can lift performance significantly. That’s incredibly powerful for our indigenous, regional and culturally diverse students,” Ms Mitchell said.

“We know that when students feel more connected to their schools they perform better. This research builds on that approach, exploring how changing the context allows students to better engage with the content.

“Every decision we make in education needs to be focused on lifting student outcomes based on evidence and best practice.”

One of the report’s authors, Professor Adrian Piccoli, said teachers know that local context matters.

“Students want to see their own lives in the material they study, and in the questions they are asked in tests. If it is more interesting, then students are more engaged. This experiment helps to better understand that link,” Mr Piccoli said.

Another of the report’s authors Professor Richard Holden said this was the first time in the world that the causal effect of cultural context on performance had been pinned down.

“It demonstrates the power of randomised controlled trials to shed light on fundamental questions in education,” he said.

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