Here’s a shocking statistic:

It’s courtesy of the Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, or ALNF, a Sydney-based charity that promotes literacy development among under-privileged groups, in particular Aboriginal people in remote Australia. To garner support for their cause, the ALNF has fantastic marketing and PR, with a seemingly endless line of celebrities who “raise their hands” and successfully appeal to a concerned public to part with their cash and fund their programs. Statistics like the one above are a great hook. They appeal to the guilt that many non-indigenous people feel about indigenous disadvantage and it gives them a way to feel like they are part of the “solution” without having to leave their urban locales.

Someone like me who’s worked in remote communities for years and is passionate about “closing the gap” would be right behind the ALNF, right? Sadly, no. There are many aspects about the ALNF that irritate me considerably. But today I’m just going to tackle one: the “4 out of 5 kids can’t read” statistic.

See, that statistic is just plain wrong. I’ve queried its accuracy with the ALNF a couple of times on social media and their response has been to point me to the NAPLAN website, the supposed source of their information. I hunted around the published NAPLAN results and here’s what I actually found. The website provides various figures and results of their tests, such as the percentage of kids that are reaching national benchmarks at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. But rather than saying that four out of five Aboriginal kids in the bush can’t read, the NAPLAN site gives us the following results, the 2012 results of the reading tests for indigenous students in “very remote” areas:

There’s no question that these results leave a lot to be desired — no one is arguing against that. But do they prove, as the ALNF suggested, that their shocking statistic is accurate? No, they don’t. I looked further, checking over results from 2010 and 2011 as well as the results of other literacy-based part of NAPLAN — writing, spelling and grammar/punctuation. They all showed very similar patterns to the results shown above.

So this is what’s wrong here:

If four out of five — or 80% — of kids can’t read, then the table above should be showing scores of around 80% for all levels. But they don’t. None are at 80%. Two are close, but the Year 3 and Year 7 kids’ results are closer to 50% than 80%. Is the ALNF just conveniently picking the worst scores and ignoring the better ones?

Regardless of the actual figures, the ALNF is implying that “below national minimum standard” means “can’t read”. This is quite a leap, and an unreasonable one. If kids aren’t making benchmark, it does not mean that they can’t read. It merely means that they didn’t reach a benchmark level. And NAPLAN results are not without controversy mind you. They’re the product of a controversial test administered under strict conditions with well-known problems, such as the fact that that it doesn’t account for cultural background or the fact that many or most kids out bush are learning English as a second language.

Concepts of literacy, illiteracy or “can’t read” are complex. This UNESCO report gives a great overview of the varying ways in which “literacy” is understood and defined around the world. To say kids that “can’t read” or are illiterate because they don’t pass a NAPLAN test, is taking an extremely narrow view of what literacy is.

Lastly, NAPLAN is an English-medium test and so any data stemming from NAPLAN actually refers only to English literacy and ignores literacy practices in any other language. It is true that literacy levels in Aboriginal languages are low, especially since bilingual education has been virtually abandoned. But people in the bush do still write in their own languages. Again, just look at Facebook — if you know where to look, you’ll see plenty of young people expressing themselves in languages other than English.

But why does it matter if the ALNF keeps promoting a false statistic? If the ALNF are using it for a good cause, then isn’t that the main thing? The problem is that they are making out that Aboriginal kids in the bush are dumber than they actually are …

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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