The newly released Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report has raised concerns across the nation, with students in Australia recording their lowest results since this form of international testing began.
After years of decline across various disciplines, Australian students have for the first time failed to exceed the OECD average in maths, while also falling in reading and science.
The OECD’s PISA is held every three years and tests 15-year-old students on their performance in maths, science and reading.
The 2018 results were released on Tuesday 3 December. Over 600,000 students from 79 countries took part in the latest PISA testing, including a nationally representative sample of 14,273 Australian students from 740 schools.
Australian students placed 16th in the world in reading, 29th in maths and 17th in science.
The grouped provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China) was the highest performer across all domains, followed by Singapore. Compared to China, Australian students performed at a level roughly one-and-a-half school years lower in reading literacy, around three-and-a-half school years lower in mathematical literacy, and around three years lower in scientific literacy.
Compared to Singapore, Australian students performed at a level one-and-one-third of a school year lower in reading, around three school years lower in mathematics, and around one-and-three-quarter school years lower in science.
In Maths, Australia’s performance is down in all states and territories, with significant declines in South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and the ACT. The smallest decline was recorded in Victoria.
The only country whose maths performance fell further than Australia is Finland, although it still outperforms Australia.
There was also found to be a significant gender gap in maths performance in favour of male students, despite the gap being closed in 2015 – but Australia’s highest performing students have recorded worrying levels of decline.
In Australia, PISA is managed by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). PISA National Project Manager and ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson, said Australia had always exceeded OECD averages until 2018.
“We are a developed, wealthy western country with justifiably high aspirations for our students so we must take notice of these results,” she said.
Dr Thomson said the results needed to be considered in the context of Australia’s relative maths performance over time. Five countries whose mathematics performance was on par with Australia’s in their first PISA assessment now outperform Australia; and, of 16 countries whose maths performance was lower than Australia’s in their first PISA assessment, nine now outperform Australia and seven are now on par with Australia.
“There is a pattern of improvement in maths performance in comparable countries that just isn’t replicated in Australia,” Dr Thomson said.
According to Dr Thomson, the latest PISA results show a continuing drop in the performance of Australian students over time. “We have observed continuing falls in our results since PISA began in 2000 and yet again the data tell us we have failed to lift our performance,” she said. “This is about much more than just ‘test-taking’ – it’s about how well we are preparing Australia’s students for adult life.”
The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering has echoed these concerns. “As we transition to an increasingly digital future, our children will need Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills more than any previous generation,” said Academy President Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE.
He said urgent action was needed to support STEM in schools so students don’t get left behind. “There is strong evidence that the influence of teachers is a significant factor in students’ performance in STEM subjects.”
Academy Education Forum Chair Professor Peter Lee FTSE added, “We need to support schools to ensure that all science and maths teachers are experts in science and maths.
“Out-of-field teaching isn’t fair to our kids, and it’s not fair to the teachers either.”
While many have voiced concerns over Australia’s performance in the latest PISA results, expert in science and maths education, Professor Deborah Corrigan from Monash University, said while it raises some legitimate concerns, it was important not to allow sensationalism to distract from the work that needs to be done
“Once again, Australian students are above the OECD average in reading and science and similar to the OECD average in mathematics. However, we still have a great deal to do in motivating students in maths and science as 1 in 3 boys and only 1 in 6 girls expect to work in science or engineering and even fewer are interested in ICT as a career,” she said.
The latest PISA results also showed that non-Indigenous students continue to outperform their Indigenous peers but, while non-Indigenous student performance has declined in all domains over the long-term, Indigenous student performance has not changed significantly.
Indigenous education experts Dr Kevin Lowe and Dr John Guenther from the University of NSW said if we are worried about the recent PISA results, we should be gravely concerned about the state of Indigenous education in Australia.
“As bad as the results are, the PISA data masks an even bigger problem for rural and remote Indigenous students,” they said in a joint statement.
Following the release of the report, Dr Lowe and Dr Guenther added that across literacy, numeracy and scientific literacy, Indigenous students are half as likely to achieve at the National Proficiency Standard compared to non-Indigenous students.
“The report treats Indigenous student performance in Australia as comparable to countries like Thailand, Mexico and Cyprus – countries which are ranked well below the OECD average. As bad as the results are, the PISA data masks an even bigger problem for rural and remote Indigenous students, who are excluded from the data, they wrote.
“The report points us to the systemic nature of Indigenous under-performance. Despite the significant investment of Closing the Gap over the last decade, there remains a need to conceptually rethink the delivery of and investment in education for all Indigenous students across Australia.”