Australian performances in mathematics and science have stagnated over the past 20 years, according to latest findings from the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report released.
TIMSS has measured student achievement in maths and science at Year 4 and Year 8 in Australia and many other countries since 1995.
These latest findings reveal little change in Australian students’ achievement since 1995.
Only in Year 4 mathematics is the score significantly higher than in 1995, and this is because of a small jump in scores in 2007. Since then there has been no change.
During this same period – 1995-2015 – high-performing countries such as Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan made steady improvements, while other countries including Canada, England, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the US have improved and now outperform Australia.
The report shows that Australian Year 4 students were significantly outperformed by students in 21 countries in mathematics and 17 countries in science.
At Year 8, Australian students were outperformed by those in 12 countries in mathematics and 14 in science.
How the situation looks in Australian classrooms
International studies like TIMSS paint a very broad picture of international and national achievement, but what do these results mean for actual Australian classrooms?
Translate the results into an average classroom of 25 Year 4 students and the picture for mathematics achievement looks similar to that of students in Year 8.
This means that after a further four years of schooling the picture doesn’t really improve, with now fewer students in Year 8 having a solid understanding of how to apply their mathematical skills.
At Year 4 level, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) is the clear leader among the Australian states and territories, achieving scores that place the territory within the top third of participating countries.
The performance of the six states is not really able to be differentiated in either mathematics or science, and the Northern Territory’s score places them in about the bottom third of participating countries.
At Year 8 level the differences are not so clear.
In mathematics the scores of the ACT, Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia are not significantly different to one another.
The ACT and VIC outperform SA and WA but there is no difference between WA and NSW and these two states.
NT was again outperformed by the other states and the ACT.
In science, ACT outperformed all jurisdictions other than VIC and WA. The six states’ performance was statistically similar to each other, and again the NT was outperformed by all other jurisdictions.
Male students perform better
TIMSS 2015 shows a small but significant gender gap appearing at Year 4 in mathematics, with male students scoring at a higher level than female students. While not sounding alarm bells just yet, this should be flagged as an area for concern.
Previous studies have shown that about one-quarter of primary teachers are not very confident about teaching mathematics, particularly when it may be well above the grade level at which they are teaching.
We need to ensure that this lack of confidence is not tied to gender and we slip backwards to when it was acceptable that women not be as numerate as men.
Underperformance at each year level
Alarmingly, the results also show a large tail of underperformance at each year level in both mathematics and science.
The TIMSS results show that around one-third of Year 4 students and around one-third of Year 8 students fail to achieve the nationally agreed proficient standard, set by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) as the TIMSS intermediate benchmark. This benchmark was thought to represent a “challenging but reasonable” expectation of student achievement.
Socioeconomic background impacts achievement
The differences in levels of achievement are starkest in terms of socioeconomic background.
TIMSS investigated student achievement for both Years 4 and 8 by socioeconomic background as indicated by the reported number of books in the home and, for Year 8 students, by the level of parents’ education.
The average mathematics score for a Year 4 student who reported having many books in the home was 548 points, a score that would earn them a place in the international top eight countries.
For the quarter of all Year 4 students who reported having only a few books in the home, their average score was 474 points, which would put them clearly in the lower half of all country rankings.
More startling is the difference in the proportion achieving the proficient standard – 72% of students with many books in the home compared to 51% with few books in the home. The story is similar for Year 8 in mathematics and even worse in science.
The gaps in achievement between Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous students remain as they were 20 years ago.
In mathematics, 62% of Indigenous students do not achieve the national proficient standard at Year 4 and 68% do not achieve it at Year 8, compared to 29% of non-Indigenous students at Year 4 and 34% at Year 8.
In science the picture is only a little more positive, with 53% of Indigenous Year 4 students and 58% of Indigenous Year 8 students not achieving the national proficient standard. This is compared to 24% of non-Indigenous Year 4 students and 30% of non-Indigenous Year 8 students.
However we know from previous reports that Indigenous students are far more likely than non-Indigenous students to be disadvantaged – to be living in provincial or remote locations, or to be in the lowest quartile of socioeconomic background – with its subsequent high correlation with lower achievement.
We are not improving
In global terms, Australian educational levels are still what they were late in the last century.
At the same time other countries have changed their trajectories and slowly but steadily improved their educational system.
If Australia is to improve its educational performance it needs to focus on long-term, coordinated and interconnected strategies that address the issues facing schools.
Among these are disparities between schools – ensuring that schools catering for even the most disadvantaged students have adequate funding to resource programs effectively for students from a range of backgrounds and with a range of issues and problems – and and making teaching more attractive to highly able school leavers.
Singapore, the highest-performing country in 2015 TIMSS, for example, recruits its teachers from the top third of high school graduates, but also encourages and provides time for practices such as mentoring and self-reflection.