Being Behind in Primary Schools Is No Problem to Australian Students as They Catch Up by High School

The future is brighter for Australian students than previously believed, according to recent The Guardian research. It addresses the common perception that students lagging behind in primary school are bound to fall behind as they progress through their education. This brings in new perspectives and is particularly important for the education system in Australia.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Contrary to popular belief, Australian students who start with below-average results make substantial progress by high school.
  • The research indicates a pattern of “compensatory growth,” especially in reading, contrary to the “Matthew effect.”
  • The study raises concerns regarding high-achieving students not making as much progress as they could.

The widely accepted “Matthew effect,” based on the concept by Canadian psychologist Keith Stanovich, suggests that students who start with strong academic skills become even stronger over time, as these skills tend to build on each other. The opposite is also believed to be true: those who start with poorer skills will lag behind. 

Focused on Australian students, the research contradicts this theory. 

“Contrary to expectations, we found no evidence of the Matthew effect in either reading or numeracy among students sitting Naplan tests in NSW or Victoria.” 

Instead, what they found was quite the opposite, termed as “compensatory growth”. This means that students who began with below-average results in primary school made more progress in high school compared to their peers who started above average.

A Unique Advantage

Australia offers a unique research environment as the national Naplan tests are designed to track students’ progress over time. This research examined patterns of growth in literacy and numeracy in two states and included a large sample size of 88,958 New South Wales students and 65,984 students in Victoria.

This large-scale study provided powerful insights into the development of students over time. It allowed for direct comparisons of test results across years, making it a valuable asset for analyzing the educational growth of students.

Addressing the Needs of High Achievers

While the research paints a positive picture for students who are behind, it raises concerns about those who are high achievers. The data suggests that students who start with high achievements are not making as much progress as they could.

“There is a popular perception teachers are not effectively teaching students basic skills. But our research suggests students who begin with poorer literacy and numeracy skills are supported by classroom teachers and do make progress over time.” 

The research also indicates that high-achieving students are possibly not being pushed to their full potential, and this is an area that may need attention.


The research dispels the common belief that if Australian students are behind in primary school, they will continue to lag throughout their education. Instead, it shows that with the right support, these students can make significant progress by the time they reach high school.

However, it’s essential not to overlook the needs of high-achieving students. Ensuring that all students receive the support and challenges they need is critical for a balanced and effective education system. This study serves as a reason for optimism amongst educators and the community, as it shows that struggling students can make good progress over time rather than falling further behind.

Read also:

Students Make a Call for Enhanced Support for Multilingual Learners

International Students Protest High Costs and Repeated Demands of English Proficiency Tests in Australia

UK Universities Have Limited Time to Review Students’ Personal Statements

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