Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Why Does Year Twelve Retention Differ between Australian States and Territories?

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Why Does Year Twelve Retention Differ between Australian States and Territories?

Article excerpt

Year Twelve retention rates have a number of well-known deficiencies that prevent proper comparisons of school completion between school systems. This paper compares secondary school completion rates across Australian states and territories from 1989 to 2002 and adjusts 'official' 2002 retention rates to take account of the acknowledged measurement problems. We identify a pattern of mismeasurement of national Year Twelve retention over the 1990s. We estimate that the Year Twelve retention rate was a particularly poor measure of national school completion in the early 1990s, when it appeared to peak in the official estimates. In contrast to the official figures, our adjusted measure of Year Twelve retention was no lower in the late 1990s than it had been in the early 1990s. Our findings suggest that governments should be cautious in using official Year Twelve retention rates as a measure of the performance of Australian school systems.


educational policy

grade repetition

secondary school students

school holding power

performance indicators

school entrance age


Retention at school to Year Twelve has traditionally been used as an indicator of school system performance in Australia. For example, the 1989 National Report on Schooling in Australia indicated that state and Commonwealth ministers for education had 'agreed to work towards a national Year Twelve retention rate of sixty-five per cent by the early 1990s' (Australian Education Council, 1991, p. 8).

The Year Twelve retention rate is measured as the number of students in Year Twelve in a given calendar year divided by the number of students who were in the first year of secondary school when that Year Twelve cohort commenced secondary school. While comparisons of retention rates across jurisdictions have always been made, official publications have repeatedly pointed to a list of factors that limit their usefulness, such as:

* population changes, including international and interstate migration

* the effect of full fee-paying overseas students at upper secondary level

* Year Twelve repetition

* the availability of part-time school study options

* the effect of alternatives to school education, most notably vocational courses available through Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions

* the different age-grade structures in the states (Steering Committee for the Review of Commonwealth/State Service Provision, 2000, pp. 66-7). (1)

In response to these deficiencies, governments have developed alternative measures of school participation and completion, such as 'attainment rates' by age nineteen and 'full-time participation' rates, which include participation in full-time study or work and jointly in part-time work and study (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, 2000). (2) Nevertheless, we will argue that these indicators require just as careful interpretation as differences in retention rates across jurisdictions, because the different age-grade structures in jurisdictions have similar effects on alternative participation indicators to their effect on retention rates.

This paper estimates the impact of the confounding influences identified above on retention comparisons to assess their importance. The first two factors identified above are handled through adjustments to the estimated retention rates that build in changes in the school-age population. (3) The impact of grade repetition is estimated from available Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data in conjunction with regression analysis. The role of the last three factors is also assessed with the regression analysis.

The second section describes the methodology used here to analyse the problems associated with retention rates and quantify their effects and presents adjusted estimates that take account of these effects. …

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