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Almost half of Australia’s 15-year-old students are failing to achieve national standards in key areas of maths, science and reading, and the nation is now more than four years behind the world’s top-performing jurisdiction in maths.
In Victoria, the proportion of low performers in maths, who lack the skills and knowledge needed to adequately participate in the workforce, has hit 26 per cent – the highest figure in the state’s history.
The latest OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results – the first since the COVID-19 pandemic – show Australia has regained its place in the international top 10 for the first time since 2003, but testing authorities say this is largely due to the decline of other countries, rather than local improvement.
Singapore was the highest-performing country in all subject areas in 2022, with a mean score of 575 points in maths, 561 in science and 543 in reading, compared with Australia’s 487, 507 and 498.
Australian students’ performance has been in steady decline over the past two decades, with maths dropping 37 points since 2003, science falling 20 points since 2006 and reading down 30 points since 2000.
In OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) terms, 20 points is roughly equal to one year of learning. Given that, Australia is more than four years behind Singapore in maths, almost three in science and more than two in reading.
A significant number of students are also failing to demonstrate more than elementary skills for their year level. Just over half achieved the National Proficient Standard: 51 per cent in maths, 58 per cent in science and 57 per cent in reading. The number has decreased each year.
The report also highlights inequity in the education system, with 15-year-olds from disadvantaged families lagging their wealthier counterparts by five years of schooling. First Nations students are about four years behind non-First Nations students.
Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said the results reinforced the need to fix education funding gaps.
“Australia has a good education system, but it can be a lot better and fairer, and these results again highlight this,” he said.
In Victoria, the maths mean score is down 23 points, or one year of learning, on test results in 2003. But the overall difference from 2018 to 2022 was not statistically significant.
Victoria, NSW, the ACT, Western Australia and Queensland outperformed the OECD average in all domains, while Tasmania and the Northern Territory performed at a similar level. South Australia outperformed the OECD average for science and reading, and achieved a similar level for maths.
Victoria has a similar level of demographic advantage to NSW and WA. But once the state’s scores are adjusted for demographic advantage, PISA results show Victoria is falling behind those states in some measures.
In maths, Victoria’s adjusted mean score – the expected performance if all students had the same socioeconomic background – of 469 aligns it with Queensland, South Australia and the ACT, but it is below NSW and significantly below WA.
In Victoria, an estimated 45 per cent of disadvantaged students were low performers, compared with 41 per cent in the ACT. NSW and WA performed slightly better than Victoria on this measure, suggesting Victoria’s disadvantaged students are performing slightly less well than their peers in the most similar jurisdictions.
Fifty-one per cent of the state’s students achieved the National Proficient Standard in maths, in line with the Australian average but below the ACT, WA and NSW.
Twelve per cent of the state’s students were high performers, in line with the national average.
PISA is normally conducted every three years and tests the knowledge of 15-year-olds. The latest test was delayed by a year due to COVID-19. Tests were taken by about 690,000 students from 81 countries, including 13,437 from Australia.
Lisa De Bortoli, senior research fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research, which manages PISA in Australia, said the nation was now below only nine other jurisdictions in maths (compared with 22 in 2018) and eight in science and reading. Those jurisdictions include Singapore, Macau, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Estonia and Canada.
It was above the OECD average for all subjects including maths, after failing to exceed the figure in 2018. But De Bortoli said the OECD average for both maths and reading had fallen significantly.
“While it’s encouraging that Australia’s results have stabilised, it’s important to recognise that our position in the top 10 is largely due to the performance of other countries dropping below ours,” she said.
“We’ve got almost half of our 15-year-olds, they’re treading water … in terms of having those elementary skills that they’re expected to have at an age when they should be swimming.”
Students in the independent sector performed better than those in Catholic or government schools in maths and science based on mean scores.
When school and student-level socioeconomic background is factored in, both independent and government schools perform better than Catholic schools in maths and science. For reading, results showed there was no advantage for independent students, but government students performed better than Catholic students.
Female students performed at a higher level than male students in reading, but that was flipped for maths.
Australian-born students performed at a lower level than first-generation students in all assessment areas. Australian-born students also performed at a lower level than foreign-born students in reading and maths.
A government spokesman said: “We’re grateful for the support of our hardworking teachers, support staff and families for backing Victorian students – there’s always more work to do, and we’ll consider the report’s findings and take action to make sure our students are at the top of the class globally.”
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