PISA report: The three measures by which Australia's students are ahead of Finland's

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 students are twice as likely to say they expect to go to university as students in Finland, nearly 35 per cent more likely to say they want to be one of the best in their class, and three times as likely to have a paid job while they're at school, a global study into student wellbeing has found.

They are also placed far higher than the OECD average in these areas, according to a new report released worldwide on Wednesday night, which is based on the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.

The findings suggest Australian students are more motivated to do well during and after high school than students in countries such as Finland, which has long been viewed as having the optimal education system.

Some 68 per cent of Australian students say they feel very anxious about tests even if they are well prepared.
Some 68 per cent of Australian students say they feel very anxious about tests even if they are well prepared. Photo: Virginia Star

The report also provides a different view of Australian students after recent concerns about Australia's declining academic results in international and national assessments.

The 2015 PISA results showed that Australian students are doing worse in reading, maths and science in real terms and in comparison to other countries, and are now just above the OECD average.

The 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report found that Australia has seen little improvement in these areas since 1995, and last year's NAPLAN results also found that literacy and numeracy results have flatlined.

However, the latest PISA report, which focuses on student wellbeing, has found that more than 54 per cent of Australian students expect to undertake a university degree, compared with an OECD average of 44 per cent, and more than 74 per cent say they aim to be one of the best students in their class, compared to an OECD average of 59 per cent.

Nearly 35 per cent of Australian students work while they are at school, compared with an OECD average of about 23 per cent.


Peter Goss, school education program director at the Grattan Institute, attributed Australia's strong performance in these areas to the school system and the nature of available jobs.

"One glimpse might be that the year 12 and HSC systems strongly reward high performance," Dr Goss said.

"The returns for students doing higher education are high in Australia compared to other countries because our economy has a higher-level service sector with fewer lower-skilled manufacturing jobs.

"And that may focus their minds in school."

The focus on broader wellbeing in Australia may also play a part in students performing better than average in non-test measures.

"Different cultures value different things," Dr Goss said.

"There are some countries where academic performance is paramount and some countries where a broader education is seen as most important, and working may play a part in this."

Sue Thomson, the director of educational monitoring and research at the Australian Council for Education Research, said she was surprised by the findings and that it was good to see that students have high levels of motivation.

However, Australia now needs to focus on the 30 per cent of Australian students who only intend to complete high school, far higher than the OECD average of 18 per cent of students, she said.

The extremely low popularity of vocational education is also cause for concern, Dr Thomson said, with 3 per cent of Australian students aiming to do a VET course compared with an average of 15 per cent of students in OECD countries.

"The jobs that students who only have year 12 can do are disappearing and kids who are most at risk are those without plans for when they finish school," she said.

"I think VET hasn't been organised very well in the last few years and we need to promote it as a good alternative past finishing school."

The importance of doing well in school and going on to university could also be leading to greater anxiety among Australian teenagers, with 68 per cent saying they feel very anxious about tests even if they are well prepared, compared with an average of 55.5 per cent of students across OECD countries and 49 per cent of Finnish students.

Nearly 47 per cent of Australian students say they get very tense when they study, far higher than the average of 37 per cent and 18 per cent of students in Finland.

Girls were far more likely to experience anxiety, with nearly 74 per cent saying they worry about getting poor grades, compared with 57 per cent of boys.

"It's clearly an issue," Dr Thomson said. "Some groups are much more anxious than others and it could be a matter of tapping into this to see what we could be doing."

The report is based on responses from students aged between 15 and 16 and school principals across the 35 OECD countries and an additional 37 countries.