The equity myth
For most students, performance at school is an important determinant of post-school opportunities and success. Measures of school performance are strongly correlated with career prospects, lifetime earnings and a range of other life outcomes.
Whether we like it or not, schools continue to have a crucial social sorting function. Many students who excel at school go on to become members of a professional elite; many who do not, wind up in low skill occupations or no occupation at all.
Recognising the power of education, school systems everywhere work to provide equality of opportunity, particularly by giving every student access to the same high-quality curriculum and by ensuring common processes for assessing student learning and rewarding success. The aim is to provide a level playing field on which every student has an equal opportunity to learn and succeed, regardless of their background.
Parents, too, look to schools to provide every student with an opportunity to go as far as their talents can take them. For many, education is a path out of present family circumstances. Parents expect schools to provide equal opportunities so that how well students perform at school depends only on their individual efforts and abilities.
School education endeavours to provide a level playing field first through the school curriculum. For each year of school, an ‘inclusive’ curriculum is developed for all students. 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. By specifying what every student is to learn, when all students are to commence learning, and how long they have to learn, an attempt is made to ensure a level curriculum playing field for all.
Second, a level playing field is provided through common assessment processes. For each year of school, achievement standards are specified and teachers are expected to assess every student against these common standards. In addition, standardised tests and examinations may be administered to all students, including literacy and numeracy tests, school selection tests and Year 12 examinations. By assessing all students against the same year-level standards and with the same tests and examinations, an attempt is made to ensure a level assessment playing field.
With every student being taught the same curriculum and assessed in the same way, differences in outcomes are now assumed to reflect differences in students’ abilities and/or effort. 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.
Importantly, a meritocratic system is not expected to deliver equal outcomes. Differences in individual ability and/or effort mean that some students will be more successful than others in learning what is taught during the year. Michael Sandel makes this point in his recent book:
Is the inequality that results from meritocratic competition justified? Defenders of meritocracy say yes; provided everyone competes on a level playing field, the outcome is just. Even a fair competition has winners and losers. What matters is that everyone starts the race at the same starting point (Sandel, 2020, p.122).
As it turns out, Sandel’s final sentence here has special pertinence in the context of school education.
The purpose of a level playing field is to ensure nobody has an unfair advantage or disadvantage.
If they do, the competition is unfair and the outcome is unjust. However, this is exactly the situation that often prevails in today’s schools. The reason is that, although great efforts are made to construct a level curriculum-assessment playing field for each year of school, students do not begin the school year at the same starting point. This fact severely undermines the intention of equal opportunity.
It is now well established that Australian students begin each school year at widely different points in their learning and development. In learning areas for which good measures are available – including reading, mathematics, science, and civics and citizenship – the most advanced 10 per cent of students in a year group are typically five to six years of learning ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent of students. 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.
A first consequence of students’ very different starting points is that many are not fully ready for the year-level curriculum they are about to be taught. These students begin each school year one, two or three years behind in their learning. Because they lack prerequisite knowledge and skills, they often struggle and begin the year on track to receive low grades. At the end of each year they are required to move to the next year-level curriculum, often not having mastered the content of the prior curriculum. For some, each year-level curriculum becomes increasingly beyond their reach. In a very real sense, the system is rigged against these students; their punishment for being behind in their learning is to be assigned a curriculum for which they are not yet ready. For them, the principle of equal treatment – which is fair only under the condition that everybody commences on the same starting line – introduces a disadvantage and fails to deliver equity.
As a result, large numbers of Australian students fall further behind in their learning the longer they are in school. By 15 years of age, one in five has failed to achieve even a minimally acceptable level of reading or mathematics, and another one in five has failed to achieve a ‘proficient’ standard in these basics (Thomson et al., 2019). These students usually have struggled with year-level curricula throughout their schooling.
An equitable curriculum would recognise that students are at widely different points in their learning and have very different learning needs. Rather than being based on a ‘conveyor belt’ design that expects all students to progress at the same pace and teachers to deliver the same curriculum to everybody, the curriculum would be designed as a frame of reference for establishing the points individuals had reached in their learning and then ensuring every student was taught and challenged at their current level. Instead of being anchored to years of school, the levels of such a 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.
It is common practice to look to teachers to solve what is in fact a problem with the design of the school curriculum. Teachers are exhorted to ‘differentiate’ their teaching to address students’ varying levels of attainment and learning needs, and most teachers work strenuously to do this. However, these exhortations usually fail to recognise just how varied students’ levels of attainment are within each year group or that differentiation can be at odds with teachers’ current responsibilities to deliver the same curriculum to everybody – itself a challenge when the curriculum is overcrowded. And there is little, if any, evidence that current efforts at differentiation reduce the variability in students’ levels of attainment from one year level to the next.
It is worth stressing that the observation being made here is not a comment about teachers’ abilities or efforts to address students’ different learning needs. Many teachers do this superbly well, but even the best teachers work within the constraints of a year-level curriculum that assumes all students are at a similar starting point. The purpose of an alternative curriculum structure would be to provide teachers with flexibility to ensure every student is taught a curriculum that addresses their current learning needs.
A second consequence of students’ very different starting points is that marks and grades do not mean what they are widely believed to mean. Parents and students assume grades at the end of a school year indicate how well a student has learnt in that particular year, regardless of how they performed in prior years. For example, a low grade (such as D or E) may be interpreted as indicating a lack of effort and limited progress during the year. But this interpretation is valid only under the condition that all students begin at the same starting point. When they do not, grades are also influenced by differences in students’ starting points. A student who begins the year well behind may make impressive progress but still not meet year-level expectations. Assessing students only against the same finish line satisfies the criterion of equal treatment but fails to deliver equity for students who make excellent progress in their learning but begin the year at a disadvantage.
An equitable assessment system would be designed to establish the points individuals had reached in their learning (what they know, understand and can do) at the time of assessment, as a guide to appropriate next steps in teaching and learning. It would provide a basis for evaluating how well a student had mastered what they are currently learning and for monitoring that student’s long-term learning progress. Rather than simply judging all students against the same finish line, it also would recognise and reward the progress individuals make over the course of a year, regardless of their starting points.
In summary, the intention to give all students an equal opportunity by assigning them the same curriculum and assessing them against the same standards appears laudable until it is realised that students have very different starting points and often lack the prerequisites for meaningful engagement with the year-level curriculum. It is fundamentally inequitable to insist on equal treatment when students are not equally ready. Equity demands a curriculum responsive to individual needs, not blind equality.
But the inequity does not end here.
Compounding this inequity, 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. In other words, many students are doubly disadvantaged.
Among students who begin each school year well behind in their learning, particular categories of students are significantly over-represented. In Australia, these include Indigenous students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and students living in remote and very remote locations. Consider, for example, the group of students furthest behind in numeracy at the start of Year 9 (and still performing at a level already achieved by about 40 per cent of Year 3 students) (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2019). The proportion of all Indigenous students in this group is eight times the proportion of non-Indigenous students. In reading, the proportion is five times the proportion of non-Indigenous students. The well-intentioned desire to deliver the same year-level curriculum to everybody disproportionately disadvantages many already disadvantaged students.
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. Many receive low grades year after year, failing to reveal the absolute progress they may be making and reinforcing their low self-perceptions as learners. Many eventually disengage from a system doubly rigged against them.
A consequence is that the outcomes of schooling drift even further from being fair reflections of individuals’ abilities and efforts. The ultimate rewards go to students with access to high-quality teaching, a school environment that sets high expectations, and strong family encouragement and support (sometimes including tutoring), and very rarely to students who begin school behind and/or who slip increasingly behind during their school years.
Nevertheless, the myth of equity persists. Sandel observes that belief in the meritocratic nature of education permits people to see educational outcomes – including lifelong outcomes – as ‘deserved’. He refers to a European study of people’s attitudes to educational outcomes. That study found that the ‘less educated are seen as responsible and blameworthy for their situation, even by the less-educated themselves’, and observed that:
If education is regarded as an individual’s own responsibility, then people are likely to be less critical of social inequality that stems from differences in education… If educational outcomes are seen as largely deserved, then their consequences are, too (Kuppens et al., 2018).
Parents and students rarely question how schools are organised, the appropriateness of year-level curricula or the fairness of assessment processes. Instead, these are viewed as immutable and are assumed to be appropriate and fair. On a level curriculum-assessment playing field, success at school, or the lack of it, is widely seen as a student’s own doing.
When it comes to the curriculum, parents of more advanced students sometimes recognise that a lock-step curriculum can hold back students capable of more, and request more challenging learning material. However, parents of less advanced students are highly unlikely to request less challenging material. If their children are not coping, they are more likely to blame their children than a poorly pitched curriculum.
Parents also may be concerned that their children would be disadvantaged if they were taught at their current level of attainment – perhaps not recognising the significant disadvantage students can suffer when continually assigned a year-level curriculum for which they are not yet ready. If students’ very different starting points were more widely appreciated, parents may demand a more flexible curriculum that would enable teachers to establish where individuals are in their learning and to target their teaching accordingly.
When it comes to assessment processes, parents rarely question grades as fair indicators of how well students have learnt during the year. However, grades usually are based on assessments against the same finish line, with low grades often reflecting individuals’ less advanced starting points (plus the fact that they were just taught a curriculum for which they were not fully ready). If these facts were more widely appreciated, parents may demand more equitable assessments than grades, including indicators of the progress individuals make in their learning in each school year.
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.
Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2019). NAPLAN Achievement in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions and Numeracy: National Report for 2019. ACARA.
Kuppens, T., Spears, R., Manstead, A. S., Spruyt, B., & Easterbrook, M. J. (2018). Educationism and the irony of meritocracy: Negative attitudes of higher educated people towards the less educated. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 429-447.
Sandel, M. J. (2020). The Tyranny of Merit: What's become of the common good? Allen Lane.
Thomson, S., De Bortoli, L., Underwood, C., & Schmid, M. (2019). PISA 2018: Reporting Australia’s Results. Volume I Student Performance. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). https://research.acer.edu.au/ozpisa/35