Australian school students two years behind world's best performing systems

What PISA says about Australian schools

December 2016: The major global test of student achievement reveals just how far Australian high school students are behind their peers in the world's best performing countries.

Australian high school students are up to two school years behind their peers in the world's best performing countries, a major global test of student achievement has revealed.

The results of the OECD's latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), released globally on Tuesday night, revealed that not only are the science, reading and maths problem-solving skills of Australian 15-year-olds sliding backwards relative to their international peers, but their skills are declining in real terms.

Australian students were the equivalent of 1½ years behind top-performer Singapore's students in science; a year behind them in reading; and 2⅓ years behind in maths.

Untrained English teachers are being forced to take classes outside their expertise.
Untrained English teachers are being forced to take classes outside their expertise.  Photo: Virginia Star

Peter Goss from the Grattan Institute said: "Australia is doing worse than Australia used to, and what's disturbing is that this pattern occurs across the board.

"Metro schools are not doing as well as metro schools used to, provincial and remote likewise. The most advantaged students are doing less well than they used to and the least advantaged as well."

In PISA, Australia's results remain just above the OECD average overall, placing 14th in science, 16th in reading and 25th in mathematics, of 72 participating countries and economies.

Australia has now fallen behind Slovenia, New Zealand and Vietnam in scientific literacy, while it lags behind the Netherlands, Estonia and Poland in reading. Maths was our weakest area internationally, coming in behind countries including Sweden, Russia and Ireland.

The trend data shows that an average 15-year-old Australian student is now seven months behind where they were in 2006 in science and a year behind where they were in maths in 2003, while their reading ability has declined by a year since 2000.


There are more Australian students in the lowest-performing cohort, and fewer high performers than in previous PISA tests.

The decline in performance over the past 16 years is consistent across all school sectors; independent, government and Catholic.

But the gap in achievement remains large - with an average of one year of schooling advantage between independent and Catholic schools and another year on top of that between Catholic and public schools.

The PISA results reveal the decline in Australian students' practical problem-solving skills is even worse than suggested by last week's results from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

The TIMSS data suggested Australia was slipping against other countries, but that performance levels were comparable with previous generations of Australian students.

But Dr Sue Thomson from the Australian Council of Education Research said the new PISA results showed "Australian students' ability to apply their mathematical and scientific knowledge to real-life situations is falling not only relative to other countries but also in an absolute sense".

As concerning as Australia's declining international results were, Dr Thomson said, of most concern were the achievement gaps domestically, for Indigenous and remote students and students of lower socio-economic status.

"The difference between advantaged and disadvantaged students is around three years of schooling. That's not changed in 16 years of testing [for reading]. That's the critical thing. We're still not attending to those gaps."

Victoria is the only state to hold its position - all other states and territories' performance has declined.

Performance in scientific, reading and mathematical literacy in NSW has declined significantly over the duration of PISA.

In NSW, 45 per cent of students are not mathematically proficient or are unable to use maths in "real-life situations". By contrast, 80 per cent of students in Singapore meet the standard.

In Australia on average, the first-generation children of migrants performed significantly better than both Australian-born and foreign-born students.

The PISA 2015 test was completed between August and September last year by a representative sample of 14,500 Australian students from 750 schools. Globally 550,000 students took part. It is conducted every three years, administered by ACER and funded by the Australian government.


Political reaction

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who is due to sit down to work out a deal on school funding with state education ministers next week, said: "We must acknowledge the reality that our performance is slipping. Given the wealth of our nation and scale of our investment, we should expect to be a clear education leader, not risk becoming a laggard.

"Commonwealth funding for schools has increased by 50 per cent since 2003 while our results are going backwards. I'm not suggesting that money is not important, of course it is vital, but ... Australia ranks as spending the fifth highest amount on education in the OECD and once you get to that level there is little value in just increasing spending."

The Gonski model of needs-based funding was designed to lift overall student achievement by applying additional loadings to students from remote schools, Indigenous and low socio-economic backgrounds or with a disability.

Federal Education minister Simon Birmingham.

Federal Education minister Simon Birmingham. Photo: Wayne Taylor

But agreement between policy-makers over how to fund schools after 2017 has broken down, with the federal government refusing to fund its Labor predecessor's commitment to the "full Gonski", while flagging it will make schools funding contingent on the states implementing measures to lift teacher quality and student performance.

NSW Education minister Adrian Piccoli, who has clashed with his federal colleague on the funding issue, said: "The 2015 PISA results show that Australia, like many other countries, faces challenges to improve student learning outcomes.

"In NSW, we have introduced significant reforms to lift the entry standard for new teachers, improve teacher quality in every classroom and establish minimum literacy and numeracy standards for HSC students."

Federal Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said: "These results show exactly why Labor introduced needs-based school funding.

"Given we know Australia's school performance is falling behind, we know disadvantaged kids continue to struggle, and we know that extra needs-based funding is starting to fix that - it's extraordinary that the Liberals are cutting $30 billion from schools, and have torn up reforms designed to improve school performance."

Federal Labor Education Shadow minister Tanya Plibersek

Federal Labor Education Shadow minister Tanya Plibersek Photo: Wayne Taylor

Jennifer Buckingham from the Centre for Independent Studies pointed out that Finland - often lauded for its education system - had declined over the past two PISA cycles.

"The PISA results confirm that Australia's education system has some serious deficiencies and that the wrong approach has been taken if the goal has been to improve student outcomes," she said.

"The growth in the proportion of students in the low performing group and the reduction in the proportion of students in the high performing group are of particular concern."