PISA results show gap between rich and poor students unchanged in 15 years

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 trying to learn in more disruptive classrooms than many of their peers in other OECD countries, a global study has revealed.

But lack of discipline in the classroom is by no means confined to poor schools, with one-third of students in rich schools reporting "disorder" in class time.

The most disadvantaged students in Australia are also lagging three years behind their peers at advantaged schools and bullying is an issue across the country, especially in primary school, with 20 per cent of year 4 students reporting that they were bullied almost weekly, new reports from two global studies shows.

One in five boys in year 3 have an emotional or behavioural problem, according to new research.
One in five boys in year 3 have an emotional or behavioural problem, according to new research. Photo: Virginia Star

The findings, in reports on the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), follow the release last year of student achievement in both the international tests.

In PISA, Australia's results were just above the OECD average overall, placing 14th in science, 16th in reading and 25th in mathematics, of 72 participating countries and economies. But Australian students were the equivalent of 1½ years behind Singapore's students in science, a year behind them in reading, and 2⅓ years behind in maths.

In TIMMS, Australia's performance in maths and science has stagnated with little change in achievement since 1995.

The findings in the latest reports, released on Wednesday, reveal that the equity gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools has barely shifted in 15 years.

Sue Thomson, the director of educational monitoring and research at the Australian Council for Education Research, said Australia's declining results in PISA would not improve while there was a "constant issue of advantage and disadvantage".

"PISA shows that the school a student attends has an impact on outcomes. Disadvantaged students in average socioeconomic level schools, for example, are almost a year of schooling higher than those in disadvantaged schools," Dr Thomson said.


Dr Thomson said the reports highlighted several concerns, including that 50 per cent of students in year 8 reported not liking maths. In year 4, that figure was 27 per cent.

"I think we need to work out what we are doing between year 4 and year 8 that is turning kids off school," Dr Thomson said.

The PISA report also showed that Australia scored significantly lower than the OECD average for classroom discipline levels.

"About one-third of the students in advantaged schools, and about half of those in disadvantaged schools, reported that in most or every class there was noise and disorder, students didn't listen to what the teacher said, and students found it difficult to learn," the PISA report said.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the reports identified discipline, engagement and ambition as key to improving Australia's education system.

"By all measures, we have some of the world's best teachers and school leaders helping students to achieve outcomes that are the envy of many other countries," Senator Birmingham said.

"However, the warning signs in these reports make it clear that while we need to ensure our record levels of funding is being properly distributed according to need, it must also be tied to proven initiatives to boost outcomes."

The federal opposition's education spokeswoman, Tanya Plibersek, said: "All the evidence shows that disadvantage is the biggest thing holding Australian schoolkids back. Which is why it's impossible to understand why the Liberals are cutting billions of dollars from disadvantaged schools."

In 2015, TIMSS assessed more than 580,000 students in years 4 and 8 across participating countries, including a nationally representative sample of about 16,000 Australian students from 572 schools.

PISA assessed more than half a million students across participating countries and economies, including about 14,500 Australian students from 750 schools.