Twins’ test scores to reveal factors influencing literacy, numeracy

Published 09 March 2012

Researchers at the University of New England are planning to analyse twins’ National Literacy and Numeracy Assessment (NAPLAN) scores in a large-scale study aimed at providing an additional basis for vital decisions on educational policy and practice.

The researchers have already participated in an international, decade-long study of the development of children’s literacy and numeracy that used data from more than 1,000 pairs of identical and fraternal twins in Australia, Scandinavia and the United States. It showed that the roles of a particular school and/or a particular teacher in determining which students do well academically and which ones struggle are considerably smaller than often claimed in the political sphere and in the media.

The use of twins enables the researchers to tease out genetic and environmental factors (“nature and nurture”) influencing children’s development relative to other children, as identical twins share the same genetically-determined native ability and fraternal twins share about half that native ability.

Titled “A behaviour-genetic study of the NAPLAN results”, the new project – funded by the Commonwealth Government through the Australian Research Council – will follow the results of up to 2,000 pairs of twins over a number of years.

“The NAPLAN tests are designed by educational authorities, are objective, and have been administered Australia-wide since 2008,” said Dr William Coventry, a lecturer in psychology at UNE. “They are unquestionably the most valuable national database on school achievement available.” Dr Coventry, UNE’s Emeritus Professor Brian Byrne, and Professor Richard Olson from the University of Colorado in the United States, are the chief investigators on the project. Dr William Coventry (left) and Emeritus Professor Brian Byrne are pictured here.

“We’ll be using the Australian Twin Registry to contact the families of twins who have done the NAPLAN tests,” Dr Coventry said. “We’ll collect data on the home and school environment, including an array of factors such as family structure, time spent on homework, reading, watching television and Internet pursuits, socio-economic status, and whether they’ve had the same or different teachers.”

“An important element of the project is its longitudinal nature – our ability to follow the children through several assessments and, in some cases, changes of school and teacher,” he said. “An analysis of the data should help us identify the extent to which genes are responsible for differential progress in literacy and numeracy. If we show that genes are relatively important – as we have done already for early literacy – we’ll know that relatively intense environmental intervention is necessary to address difficulties in literacy and numeracy.”

Dr Coventry emphasised that “genes aren’t destiny”, but that greater intervention at the level of the individual student is necessary to counter educational deficits due to genetic factors.

“Our previous study showed that different schools have almost no differential effect on children’s literacy progress relative to other children of the same age, and that different teachers have a much smaller effect than is often claimed in public discussions,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to see if the same applies to numeracy – and to language more broadly.”