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Australia’s PISA performance declines further

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Authors: Rebecca Vukovic
Australia’s PISA performance declines further

The PISA 2018 results show Australian students’ reading, mathematics and science skills are declining, to the point where for the first time in the assessment’s history, Australia’s performance has fallen to meet an OECD average – in mathematics.

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a large-scale, comparative assessment that measures the skills of 15-year-olds around the globe every three years. Around 600 000 students from 79 countries and partner economies took part in the 2018 test cycle, and in Australia, 14 273 students from 740 schools took part.

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) administers PISA in Australia, led by ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson, on behalf of the OECD.

Thomson says 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 says.

Maths performance is down in all states and territories, with dramatic drops observed in South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and the ACT in particular, and the smallest decline recorded in Victoria.

Each PISA cycle a different domain is the major focus, meaning that students are afforded extra time to complete this section of the assessment. Reading literacy was the focus of the 2018 cycle.

Data show Australia’s performance in PISA has declined in all three assessment domains over time. Australia’s average performance in reading literacy fell 26 points between 2000 and 2018, 33 points in mathematical literacy between 2003 and 2018 and 24 points in scientific literacy between 2006 and 2018.

‘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,’ Thomson says. ‘This is about much more than just “test-taking” – it’s about how well we are preparing Australia’s students for adult life.’

The highest performer in PISA 2018, in all three assessment domains, was the grouped provinces of Beijing–Shanghai–Jiangsu–Zhejiang (China), followed by Singapore. The highest performing OECD countries were Estonia in reading, Japan in mathematics and Estonia in science.

Australia’s 2018 results in each domain

The table below shows Australia’s performance compared to other countries and economies in the 2018 test cycle.

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School
 

Reading literacy

For reading literacy in the 2018 cycle, Australian students achieved an average score of 503 points, which was significantly higher than the OECD average of 487 points. Australia performed the equivalent of about 1.5 years of schooling lower than the highest performing economy, Beijing–Shanghai–Jiangsu–Zhejiang (China), and around 1.3 years lower than the highest performing country, Singapore.

Mathematical literacy

Australian students achieved an average score of 491 points. This was not significantly different to the OECD average of 489 points. Australia performed the equivalent of more than 3.5 years of schooling lower than the highest performing economy, Beijing–Shanghai–Jiangsu–Zhejiang (China), and around three years lower than the highest performing country, Singapore.

Scientific literacy

Australian students achieved an average score of 503 points, which was significantly higher than the OECD average of 489 points. Australia performed the equivalent of more than three years of schooling lower than the highest performing economy, Beijing–Shanghai–Jiangsu–Zhejiang (China), and around 1.75 years lower than the highest performing country, Singapore.

How Australia performed in 2018

By state and territory

In reading, students in the Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia performed at a higher level than the OECD average, while students in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Tasmania performed on par with the OECD average.

In maths, students in the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia performed at a higher level than the OECD average. Students in Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales performed on par with the OECD average, and students in South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory performed at a level lower than the OECD average.

In science, students in the Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales performed at a higher level than the OECD average, while students in Tasmania and the Northern Territory performed at a similar level to the OECD average.

By school sector

On the raw scores across the assessment domains, students in Australian independent schools performed higher than students in Catholic schools, and students in Catholic schools performed higher than students in government schools.

Across the assessment domains, there was around three-quarters of a year of schooling difference between students in government schools and students in Catholic schools, around one-and-a-half years of schooling difference between students in government schools and students in independent schools, and almost one year of schooling difference between students in Catholic schools and students in independent schools.

By gender

In reading, female students performed better than male students with a 32 point difference in mean score, which is the equivalent of around one year of schooling. In maths, male students performed six points higher than female students, which is the equivalent of around one-fifth of a year of schooling.  And, in science, there was no difference between the performance of female and male students.

By socioeconomic background

Information about students’ socioeconomic background was collected in the Student Questionnaire part of the assessment. Students were asked about their family and home background, and this information was used to construct a measure of socioeconomic background called the Economic, Social and Cultural Status index.

In Australia across all assessment domains, the results showed that students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds performed at a higher level than students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from the highest socioeconomic quartile performed, on average, about three years of schooling higher than students in the lowest quartile.

Indigenous students

In PISA 2018, 5 per cent of the assessment sample for Australia identified as having an Indigenous background. The results show, the performance of Indigenous students was lower than for non-Indigenous students in all assessment domains.

In reading, the difference in the mean score was 76 points (or the equivalent of around two-and-a-third years of schooling). In maths, the difference in the mean score was 69 points (or the equivalent of around two-and-a-half years), and in science, the difference in the mean score was 75 points (or the equivalent of around two-and-three-quarter years).

The Australian reports, PISA 2018 In Brief I: Student performance and PISA 2018: Reporting Australia’s Results. Volume I: Student performance by Sue Thomson, Lisa De Bortoli, Catherine Underwood and Marina Schmid, were released to coincide with the launch of the international PISA study by the OECD in Paris.

For more information, and to access PISA reports and data, visit www.acer.org/ozpisa

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