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20-year slide in maths and science learning

20-year slide in maths and science learning

With this week’s release of results from the four-yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) we now have 20 years of data on mathematics and science levels in Australian schools.

The results are not encouraging. According to the report, TIMSS 2015: A first look at Australia’s results, released by the Australian Council for Educational Research, average achievement levels in secondary schools continue to slide in comparison with performances in many other countries.

As the figure below shows, the gap between Australia and Singapore, the world’s highest performing country in Year 8 mathematics, widened between 1995 and 2015. Only seven per cent of our students now perform at the advanced level in mathematics, compared with 54 per cent of students in Singapore.

We have also been overtaken by a number of countries that we once outperformed, including the United States and England. Australia now performs below 12 other nations, including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Slovenia.

Changes in average Year 8 mathematics achievement, 1995 to 2015, in selected countries

Changes in average Year 8 mathematics achievement, 1995 to 2015, in selected countries (source: TIMSS).

In Year 8 science, the picture is not much better, as the figure below shows. Levels of science achievement in Australia were unchanged between 1995 and 2015. The gap between Australia and the highest-performing countries widened. Seven per cent of Australian students now perform at the advanced level in science, compared with 42 per cent of students in Singapore. We are significantly outperformed by the United States and England, as well as by a dozen other countries including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan and Hungary.

Changes in average Year 8 science achievement, 1995 to 2015, in selected countries

Changes in average Year 8 science achievement, 1995 to 2015, in selected countries (source: TIMSS).

In primary schools the picture is a little more encouraging, with some evidence of improvement in Year 4 mathematics levels over the past 20 years. But for a nation that believes its future relies on increased levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), greater innovation and increased numbers of students studying mathematics and science in the senior secondary school, the latest results are concerning.

Which brings us to the question of what it will take to lift levels of mathematics and science learning in schools.

The answer is not to do more of the same. Reworking the school curriculum, testing students’ numeracy levels and maintaining existing approaches to teacher professional development are unlikely to produce world-class improvements.

The answer lies in raising the effectiveness of classroom teaching, which in turn depends on teachers with high levels of mathematics and science knowledge implementing proven teaching strategies.

Currently, the percentage of top-performing school leavers choosing teaching as a career in Australia is in decline. School leavers with high levels of mathematics and science are seeking careers elsewhere. As a result, these school subjects are often taught by less well-prepared teachers. For example, 38 per cent of teachers teaching mathematics in Years 7 to 10 have never studied how to teach mathematics and have not taken mathematics beyond first-year tertiary level. As a nation, we must attract more of our highly able young people into teaching and provide them with training in the teaching of mathematics and science.

Significant improvements also depend on better ways of monitoring where students are in their mathematics and science learning. What do they currently know? What do they not know? What misunderstandings have they developed? Diagnostic information of this kind is crucial for targeting teaching, setting personal learning goals and monitoring individual progress. Teachers, students and parents require clear roadmaps against which they can monitor long-term progress. But quality feedback of this kind is often missing. In its absence, teachers deliver the same year-level curriculum to all students and then grade them on how much they have learnt.

The 20-year slide in maths and science learning is a national challenge that requires a national response. We cannot afford another 20 years of stagnation.

ACER is the national project manager for TIMSS and has released the results on behalf of the Australian, and state and territory governments.

The TIMSS 2015: A first look at Australia’s results report is available at www.acer.edu.au/timss


  • Unfortunately this latest report is just a continuation of the trends identified years ago. The problem is never addressed effectively because the education system in Australia is too politicised. All I hear from Pollies and in the media is about funding, re-allocating funding, Gonski, raising ATAR scores etc. The problem is that students were all born into the Web World (1991) and teachers were not. The result is a massive gap between teaching and learning. No one seems to address this. My answer to the problem for students of maths is understand that they collaborate naturally from early interaction with the Web. The teaching system is years behind where the students are. Want to know more ...happy to oblige.

    30 November 2016
  • It appears that the USA and Singapore have achieved noticeable improvements over the past 20 years. What implemented strategies have allowed them to make such remarkable improvements?

    30 November 2016
  • Geoff Masters has selected one variable contributing to academic achievement. Class size may be a significant factor.

    In Singapore from 1981 to 2014 the ratio of primary students to teaching staff changed from 30.1 to 16.5
    The ratio of secondary students to teaching staff in Singapore changed from 20.6 to 12.5.

    It would be interesting to see if this variable correlates with achievement.

    30 November 2016
  • Correlation isn’t causation, but this decline has occurred at the same time as the growing drift into Catholic and independent schools, away from public education - is this decline in performance a result? Is there sufficient accountability in those systems to ensure teacher quality and student growth are adequate, compared with the oversight of government schools? This isn’t an opinion or a political statement, just a question. We have a more heavily privatised/segmented education system than the highest-performing jurisdictions, is that a factor?

    30 November 2016
  • That our near Asian neighbours do better in mathematics has little to do with the maths skills of their teachers (which is higher) or the quality of their teaching (which is way lower) but more to do with the time spent on mathematics. In these countries maths is taught every day (and not 3 days a week as in many Australian schools)  and the time given to maths at 8-10 hours a week is double that of other subjects.Here we want to give all subjects the same time allocation which becomes a major waste of student’s time.

    30 November 2016
  • I would be interested to see the teacher contact time versus preparation time of the higher performing countries. In my time teaching I have seen the administrative time spent by teachers increase exponentially which has led to less time being spent collaboratively seeking how to develop innovative and engaging lessons.

    30 November 2016
    • Check out https://grattan.edu.au/report/catching-up-learning-from-the-best-school-systems-in-east-asia/ that explorers exactly that question

      I would be interested to see the teacher contact time versus preparation time of the higher performing countries. In my time teaching I have seen the administrative time spent by teachers increase exponentially which has led to less time being spent collaboratively seeking how to develop innovative and engaging lessons.

      - Originally posted by Rick


      View comment

      01 December 2016
  • The poor quality of numeracy skills is evident across the board particularly in Vocational education.

    For example, VET, pre-apprentices and 1st and 2nd year apprentices struggle with the comparatively simple maths because they lack even basic skills. Most can add and subtract (small numbers) but many cannot multiply and divide nor do they have any real underpinning entry level knowledge or skills.

    Arguments that they are doing a trade or vocational training because they are not good at maths or other “school” subjects are rubbish even though I have even heard some teachers make these kinds of comments.

    We are failing these students by not helping them develop basic skills in these areas.

    I don’t know what the answer is but we need to find solutions to this problem.

    10 December 2016
  • The chart is misleading since it shows an expanded vertical axis exaggerating the differences in the data. see photo link.


    It doesn’t mean that we don’t have a problem, but perhaps the performance comparison are not as important as they may first appear. The emphasis on the performance differences may actually be counterproductive and may distract us from the real underlying issues.

    10 December 2016
  • Mathematics and science learning require many of the points made above if we are to improve. However, in the classroom, it might be helpful if worksheets were banned; photocopiers were removed from schools except for administrative purposes. The design of many worksheets are as time-fillers and contribute to superficial learning or rote learning.  A resurgence of rich, interactive, strategic teaching that is planned by each teacher to match the learning characteristics and is consistent with the true nature of mathematics and science may be a way ahead.

    Another point in the support of teachers: Primary school teachers are now implementing new curriculum in all areas which have been introduced over the last 4 years (ACARA). History and Geography have replaced Studies of Society and the Environment (Queensland) requiring twice as much time as before and new to all primary school teachers. Technology has two major components including Design Technology and Digital Technology, much of which is very new to most teachers. Also, politicians and society have placed an enhanced emphasis on coding to be taught from Prep. And then there is NAPLAN and Federal funding being aligned to achievements in NAPLAN.

    10 December 2016
  • What is it that TIMMS measures and how aligned is that to our current curriculum documentation and implemented curriculum? Is the test measuring what Australians want children to be learning in science and as science?

    How are Australians and Australian viewpoints represented in the testing scenario?

    Does anyone know a report or document that could provide this information and evaluate this aspect of the data?

    Since the 1980s, teachers and science educators in Australia have promoted the importance of children learning to work and think scientifically including being able to conduct research, compile data, analyse data etc? This has been balanced by the need to learn some declarative knowledge in each of the streams of science as well.  How well does the Year 4 data represent the learning that is expected in Prep to Year 3? How much can children learn in one hour per week of science between Prep to Year 3 and then beyond in one hour from Year 4 to Year 6?

    15 December 2016
    • Hi Rosie, thanks for your comment.

      I’d recommend taking a look at the TIMSS page (https://www.acer.edu.au/timss) which has a lot more information. It’s also worth mentioning that the second part of the PISA report to be released early next year will investigate equity in education, students’ science motivation and beliefs, the school learning environment, and collaborative problem solving.


      Rebecca (Teacher team)

      View comment

      15 December 2016
  • Well done Michael for pointing out the misleading use of graphical representation in this report. Can anyone tell me where the crisis is? Australia does quite well given that it is the only country that has such a massive proportion of public monies diverted to elite private education. Perhaps when this egg can be unscrambled, then some redressing of indigenous and rural disadvantage in this country can occur. Otherwise the only thing that is served is more teacher bashing and ongoing arguments between the states and feds on how to fund and support an education system that is fit for all.

    10 March 2017

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