Aus­tralian stu­dents' maths per­for­mance falls to OECD av­er­age in worst re­sult since 2000

The Guardian Australia - - Front Page - Paul Karp

Aus­tralian stu­dents’ per­for­mance in math­e­mat­ics has fallen to the OECD av­er­age, the first time re­sults in one of the three core com­pe­ten­cies has done so since in­ter­na­tional com­par­isons be­gan in 2000.

The Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment re­sults, re­leased on Tues­day evening, con­firm a con­tin­u­ing long-term de­cline in Aus­tralian stu­dents’ read­ing, math­e­mat­ics and sci­ence skills.

There are now 10 coun­tries with “sig­nif­i­cantly higher” re­sults in read­ing than Aus­tralia, 23 in maths and 12 in sci­ence.

The fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Dan Te­han, said the re­sults were “very dis­ap­point­ing” and “should have alarm bells ring­ing” but pushed re­spon­si­bil­ity on to the states rather than re­vis­it­ing the is­sue of fed­eral fund­ing to im­prove re­sults.

Te­han said that the ed­u­ca­tion coun­cil meet­ing of min­is­ters next week “pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity to re­set” the agenda, call­ing on states to be “bold” and sign up to re­forms pro­posed in the sec­ond Gon­ski re­port in­clud­ing to im­ple­ment a cur­ricu­lum bro­ken up into smaller “learn­ing pro­gres­sions”.

But Aus­tralian Ed­u­ca­tion Union fed­eral pres­i­dent, Cor­rena Haythorpe, said “ex­tra teach­ing re­sources that would be­come avail­able by en­sur­ing that all schools are funded at the [schools re­sourc­ing stan­dard] bench­mark is key in clos­ing this per­for­mance gap”.

The Pisa test makes in­ter­na­tional com­par­isons be­tween 15-year-old stu­dents, who are near­ing the end of com­pul­sory school­ing. In 2018, some 600,000 stu­dents in 79 coun­tries were tested, in­clud­ing an Aus­tralian sam­ple of 14,273 stu­dents in 740 schools.

Com­pared with stu­dents in the high­est per­form­ing coun­try, Sin­ga­pore, Aus­tralian stu­dents are one and a third years be­hind in read­ing, around three years be­hind in math­e­mat­ics and one and three quar­ter years be­hind in sci­ence.

The Aus­tralian Coun­cil for Ed­u­ca­tional Re­search deputy chief ex­ec­u­tive, Sue Thom­son, said Aus­tralia was “a de­vel­oped, wealthy western coun­try with jus­ti­fi­ably high as­pi­ra­tions for our stu­dents so we must take no­tice of these re­sults”.

Aus­tralian stu­dents have been left be­hind due to a “pat­tern of im­prove­ment in maths per­for­mance in com­pa­ra­ble coun­tries that just isn’t repli­cated in Aus­tralia”, she said.

Since test­ing be­gan in 2000, five coun­tries which were on par in math­e­mat­ics over­took Aus­tralia, while of the 16 coun­tries with lower maths scores, nine now out­per­form Aus­tralia and seven are on par with Aus­tralia.

In maths a “sig­nif­i­cant gen­der gap” which had closed in 2015 opened back up in the 2018 tests in favour of male stu­dents. Maths re­sults were down in all states and ter­ri­to­ries with South Aus­tralia, New South Wales, Tas­ma­nia, Western Aus­tralia and the Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­tory record­ing the big­gest de­clines.

In read­ing and sci­ence, Aus­tralia’s av­er­age scores (503) were still ahead of the OECD aver­ages of 487 and 489 re­spec­tively.

Av­er­age per­for­mance in read­ing was down in all states and ter­ri­to­ries ex­cept Vic­to­ria, Queens­land and the Northern Ter­ri­tory, and in sci­ence ev­ery­where ex­cept Vic­to­ria and the NT.

La­bor’s shadow ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, Tanya Plibersek, said the re­sults were “a huge wake-up call for Scott Mor­ri­son and the Lib­er­als, who’ve seen school test scores plum­met on their watch”.

“If our kids can’t read, write, and do maths and sci­ence, then we’ve failed.”

Haythorpe said the re­sults showed a gap in the per­for­mance of stu­dents from higher so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds com­pared with those from lower so­cioe­co­nomic back­grounds.

“Fed­eral Coali­tion bud­get cuts have had a deep im­pact on public schools. We need to in­vest in our schools to close the ed­u­ca­tion gaps be­tween high SES and low SES stu­dents.”

Te­han flagged fed­eral pres­sure on the states to ad­vance a raft of re­forms in­clud­ing im­ple­ment­ing the Gon­ski re­port, em­bed phon­ics as part of teacher train­ing, and de­clut­ter­ing cur­ricu­lums to “get back to ba­sics”.

“Aus­tralia should be a leader in school ed­u­ca­tion,” he said. “Our stu­dents should be ranked among the best

in the world. We should not ac­cept any­thing less.

“My mes­sage to the state and ter­ri­tory ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ters is this: leave the teach­ers’ union talk­ing points at home and be am­bi­tious.

“Money is not the is­sue be­cause Es­to­nia was the top-per­form­ing coun­try in read­ing and sci­ence and they spend half as much money per stu­dent as


But Thom­son told Guardian Aus­tralia that although the com­mon­wealth does not con­trol ed­u­ca­tion, fund­ing is a joint re­spon­si­bil­ity of both fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments and “re­sourc­ing is ob­vi­ously a part of the whole equa­tion”.

While ad­dress­ing “crowded” cur­ricu­lums may help, Thom­son warned against a “back to ba­sics” ap­proach, which can lead teach­ers to “teach to the mid­dle” and fail to help weaker stu­dents. Thom­son also called for more spe­cial­ist maths teach­ers and more train­ing for peo­ple teach­ing maths although it is not their main field.

Pro­gramme for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment re­sults have con­firmed a long-term de­cline in Aus­tralian stu­dents’ read­ing, math­e­mat­ics and sci­ence skills. Pho­to­graph: Paul Miller/AAP

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