Maths and science results in Australian schools have collapsed despite government spending on schools hitting nearly $58 billion a year, 70 per cent more than when global school testing started.
Australia has dropped to “average” in the OECD for the first time, compared to “above average” for the previous two decades, results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show.
That means Australian 15-year olds are 3 1/2 years behind in maths literacy than 15-year olds in the Chinese provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang – which are grouped at top of the OECD list.
According to PISA Australian students are almost two years behind in science than Singapore, which is the highest-ranked country overall, after the four China provinces.
And, while reading results are static compared with the last PISA results three years ago, other countries are racing ahead, which means Australia is one year and nine months behind Singapore in literacy.
Sydney mother Maria Black said no one liked to hear that any part of a future generation or their country was not performing at the same level as other countries.
Ms Black, whose daughter Chloe, 16, is a student at Santa Sabina College in Strathfield said: “You’d like to think our education system was giving each student a chance to compete on equal footing in a world that is challenging.”
Education Minister Dan Tehan said the results were “very disappointing” and “should have alarm bells ringing”.
School education is managed and largely paid for by the states and territories and Mr Tehan said they had to get back to literacy and numeracy basics.
“Australia should be a leader in school education. Our students should be ranked among the best in the world. We should not accept anything less. The time has come for us to change direction.
“My message to the state and territory education ministers is this: leave the teacher’s union talking points at home and be ambitious. We have a clear road map to implement the reforms that will improve student outcomes and we should be bold and decisive.
“The Gonski review said prioritise the implementation of learning progressions for literacy and numeracy during the early years of schooling to ensure the core foundations for learning are developed by all children by the age of eight.”
The maths results were the most disappointing but the most unsurprising, said Fiona Mueller, head of the school education program at the Centre for Independent Studies.
The teaching workforce has struggled with maths for a long time and too many teachers didn’t have specialist maths degrees, she said.
It reflected what employers were saying about employees and it pointed back to a lack of teacher expertise and less rigour in the curriculum.
“It’s hard to quantify but there is a loss of intellectual aspiration. We don’t want to do hard things. Some people call it ‘theraputic policy’, that’s the idea that you need to prioritise the softer aspects of schooling experience.
“It’s that ‘no fail’ idea. We want all students to pass but there is an inevitable loss of rigour if the standards aren’t set high enough.
Dr Mueller said PISA was not an isolated case. There had been a series of wake-up calls including NAPLAN where there are few signs of improvement, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) where results are falling.
“PISA is telling us we have multiple indicators to reset and we have to maintain high expectations. This idea that we shouldn’t put too much pressure on students has lead to a sense of satisfaction with being average”.
Good money after bad
The data show Australian students are not just falling against other countries, they’re losing ground compared with their own previous alumni.
The average performance in maths in 2018 was 33 points below where it was in 2003 when maths was tested in Australia for the first time. And there’s been an 8 per cent increase in the number of students described as “low performers”.
In science Australia is 24 points lower than in 2006 when science was tested for the first time and the number of “low performers” has increased by 6 per cent.
The results showed independent schools were the best performers, followed by Catholic schools, followed by government schools.
School mother Maria Black said she had not known about the PISA results but her family had chosen to send daughter Chloe to an independent school because it would give her the best chance to do well.
She liked the fact the school was introducing the International Baccalaureate with its strong orientation to jobs anywhere in the world.
“Chloe’s school is strong academically and on social justice, music and sport. My experience for education for my children has been nothing but positive,” she said.
Australian PISA researcher Sue Thomson said the big question was now about education spending.
Spending by all levels of government on all types of school has risen from less than $30 billion a year in 2002 to $57.6 billion in 2018, well over a billion a week.
“We need to look at whether spending has been effective. If we’re spending more money and it’s not working we’ve got to look how we’re spending the money.
“There is no quick and easy answer. But there’s no point throwing good money after bad without something good to show for it.
Dr Thomson, who is deputy chief executive of the Australian Council for Education Research said the results on maths were “a line in the sand”. Falling from “above OECD average” to only “average” was not good enough.
Australia’s biggest school system, in NSW, which spends $18.1 billion on education – $5 billion more than Victoria which is the next biggest – has fallen to the bottom half of Australian states in maths, science and reading.
Only 52 per cent of NSW students attained the “National Proficient Standard” in maths, with 55 per cent in science and 56 per cent in reading.
Dr Mueller from CIS said NSW students in 2018 had worse literacy than their counterparts in the state in 2000.
“Reading literacy is of huge concern. Yes it’s been steady since 2015 but since 2000 there’s been an increase in the number of lower performers and decrease in the number of high performers.
Reading is the key to access of just about every part of the curriculum and we need it to function confidently in life and work.”
The ACT scored best of all states and territories Australia’s PISA results overall and had 70 per cent attainment of National Proficient Standard in reading.
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