The number of students with disabilities being offered places at selective schools tripled this year, but Indigenous and new migrant numbers were still low despite a 2018 review showing they were under-represented in the system.
Girls also remained less likely than boys to be offered or accept places in the sought-after schools, NSW Department of Education data shows.
A departmental review of access to the state’s 46 selective schools two years ago identified disabled, Indigenous, disadvantaged, regional and female students were less likely to sit the test, be offered a place, or accept an offer.
This was due to a lack of knowledge about the test, too few provisions to make it accessible, unfamiliarity with the test format - which is one of the issues paid coaching is used to address - and “shortcomings in test design”.
As the Herald revealed on Friday, the department has given the test contract to a new, digital provider in a bid to refresh the process and widen access to these groups.
It has also tried to make parents more aware of the application process through social media and school newsletters, and has introduced provisions to make it more accessible to students with a disability.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of students with disabilities being offered a place at a selective school grew from 183 to 611 - an increase of more than 200 per cent, the figures, obtained under freedom of information laws, show. They made up 11 per cent of students offered places.
Across the public school system about 20 per cent of students have some kind of learning adjustment due to a disability.
The number of Indigenous students remained low, with 134 sitting the test out of a total candidature of 14,000, 54 receiving places and 38 accepting them.
Students with non-English speaking backgrounds who have lived in Australia for less than four years were also under-represented, with 263 applying, 79 receiving offers and 63 accepting.
Girls made up 48 per cent of total applicants, but 46 per cent of those received offers and 44 per cent accepted them. The proportion of regional and remote students who accepted offers grew slightly to 16 per cent.
A spokesman for the department said “significant steps” have been taken to increase awareness of the test among parents, “to help them understand selective high school education and how to access it.
“Over the past two years there has been a targeted campaign to promote the application process through social media and school newsletters to be more inclusive of all students.”
He said the suitability of test items for under-represented students was considered by expert panels before the 2020 test, and “work is now under way with the new test provider Cambridge Assessment for the new test design to be introduced for the 2021 test.”
Mohan Dhall, chief executive of the Australian Tutoring Association, said one way to increase equity of access to selective education would be to release the tests every year so students could familiarise themselves with the exam.
Tests are not released, but coaching colleges ask students to memorise questions then use them to create practice papers, which they supply as part of their service.
"A child with socio-economic disadvantage, where would they go to find those resources?" Mr Dhall said. "Their school doesn’t have access to them, because they are not publicly available. It would also nullify this idea that coaching colleges have some sort of edge because they have special knowledge."
Jae Yup Jared Jung, an expert in gifted education at the University of NSW, said international research suggested schools should be using multiple criteria to pinpoint giftedness. "Such an approach would include objective measures such as ability tests and subjective measures such as portfolios of work and nominations," he said.