Teachers are dealing with wide discrepancies in student learning, with a five- to eight-year difference between the strongest and weakest students in some classrooms, a new report by public policy think-tank, the Grattan Institute, has revealed.
Teachers should target teaching to individual students, and should be given adequate time and training to monitor progress, the report says.
"Schools need to commit to the systematic collection of high-quality evidence of student learning, to analyse this evidence to identify learning gaps and to monitor progress over time, and to use this evidence to identify successful teaching," the report says.
Standardised testing was a useful tool, but should not be heavily relied upon by teachers to track progress. NAPLAN results are "imprecise" and the tests were held infrequently, the report says.
It was also found some teachers were inaccurately grading their students, giving marks based on expectation rather than true performance.
Schools should be focusing on the level of a student's progress on individual tasks, rather than measuring ability through standard grades, the report urges.
"A student could make two years of progress in a single year but still be so far behind that an E is appropriate. Another student could start so far ahead that she could afford to make no progress for several years and still receive an A," the report says.
It was found parents could also play a role, by asking schools to report on how much a student has learnt over multiple years, rather than simply reporting their grades.
A targeted teaching approach would fast-track the progress of learning and land Australian students in the top five performing countries on the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, the report proposed.
The report says an overhaul of Australia's classrooms would cost roughly $300 million a year.
Schools have taken steps of their own in relation to these concerns. Three years ago, Camberwell South Primary School decided to gather student data to build a curriculum around the spectrum of student ability.
As part of the so-called "targeted teaching" approach, the school appointed five full-time coaches, who observe teachers' classrooms and offer mentoring in weekly hour-long sessions.
Principal Coralee Pratt said the classroom has changed radically in recent years, with students doubling their rate of progress in spelling and science.
"You don't see 'good work' or 'nice work' anymore in teachers' feedback. It's very focused, very targeted at what was the intent of that task, and how the student has achieved it, and how they can get better at doing what they're doing," she said.