OPINION: Test results make for disturbing reading

INTERNATIONAL reports on the reading, mathematics and science achievement of school students, released yesterday by the Australian Council for Educational Research, reveal disappointing results for Australia.

The 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study  assessed approximately 600,000 students in years 4 and 8 across the participating countries. 

Results from the study, in which Australia has participated since 1995, shows that, with the exception of a small improvement in year 4 mathematics performances between 1995 and 2007, Australian students’ performances in mathematics and science stagnated over the past 16 years. 

During this same period, a number of other countries like Singapore, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei dramatically improved their performances while other countries such as   the United States showed steady improvements in performance.

The 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessed approximately 300,000 year 4 students across the participating countries. Because 2011 was the first time that Australia has participated in this study, the report provides the first-ever internationally comparable information about the reading levels of Australian primary school students. 

 It revealed that many Australian year 4 students have substantial literacy problems, with around one-quarter of students not meeting the intermediate benchmark – the minimum proficient standard set by the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (now known as the Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood) in mathematics and science, and extrapolated to reading in PIRLS.

Australia’s participation in  these studies complements our participation in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests samples of 15-year-old students on their preparedness to use the knowledge and skills they have gained at school to meet real-life challenges.

Participation in TIMSS and PIRLS presents policymakers with an opportunity to benchmark Australian students against other countries at an earlier stage of their development as learners.

In September, Prime Minister Julia Gillard set an ambitious goal for Australia: to be ranked as a top-five country in reading, mathematics and science by 2025. Clearly she is hoping to lift Australia in the international rankings in PISA. But while the results of the next cycle of PISA will not be known until next December,  TIMSS and PIRLS highlight the magnitude of the challenge Australia faces if we are to achieve the PM’s goal.

PIRLS indicates that Australia was significantly outperformed by 21 countries in year 4 reading.

TIMSS indicates that Australia was significantly outperformed by 17 countries in mathematics and by 18 countries in science in year 4, and by six countries in mathematics and by nine countries in science in year 8.

Rankings can, of course, obscure as much as they reveal, so it is worth investigating student achievement in terms of benchmarks in the reports a little further. 

Between 29 and 37per cent of year 4 and year 8 students in Australia performed below the intermediate benchmark in mathematics and science. In two Australian states/territories, this increased to more than 50per cent for year 8 mathematics.

 By comparison, in Korea and Singapore, 7per cent  and  8per cent of year 8 students performed below the intermediate benchmark in mathematics. 

At the same time, only a modest proportion of Australian students achieved at the high and advanced international benchmarks.

For a developed country like Australia, these results are concerning. They underline the enormous challenge we face if we are to lift Australian achievement levels in reading, mathematics and science to the levels of the highest performing countries. This challenge will not be met by any single strategy, but will require a well-planned and coordinated effort on the part of governments, education systems, schools, parents and the broader community.

Questionnaires were used in PIRLS and TIMSS to gather further information from students, parents, teachers and school principals. 

Around one in 10 students at both year levels are disengaged from school, reporting that they do not like being in school and do not feel as though they belong.

According to teachers, 70 to 80per cent of students at both year levels are limited to some extent by their lack of knowledge and prerequisite skills. 

However, the report also shows that around one-third of year 8 students are being taught mathematics and about 15per cent taught science by teachers ‘out-of-field’ – potentially lacking the strength in pedagogical and content knowledge to provide adequate extension for high-achieving students or to provide alternative structure for students who are having difficulties or who are disengaged.

It is difficult to see how Australia will be in the top five countries by 2025 if we continue on our current path. 

To be in the top five school systems in the world over the next 13 years, Australia will need to address measures to ensure effective teaching, the provision of a world-class curriculum, excellent measures for assessment that supports student learning, and school improvement.

Dr Sue Thomson is Director of Educational Monitoring and Research at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and the lead author of the Monitoring Australian year 4 student achievement internationally: TIMSS and PIRLS 2011

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