Australian schools continue to fall behind other countries in maths and science

Australian performances in mathematics and science have stagnated over the past 20 years, according to latest findings from the 2015
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Australian schools continue to fall behind other countries in maths and science.

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.

Author provided/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

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.

Trends in Year 4 mathematics achievement within Australia, 1995–2015, by Indigenous background.
TIMSS 2015

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.

At present there is a great deal of discussion about increasing the ATAR for entry to teacher education courses, and on ensuring that all teachers have adequate levels of literacy and numeracy.

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.

The Conversation

What do you think contributed to this issue? Can teachers ever be blamed for students’ lower achievements or should the focus be on the government or even parents?

Sue Thomson, Director, Educational Monitoring and Research Division; Research Director, Australian Surveys Research Program, Australian Council for Educational Research

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

  1. Jean Walker  

    As a high school teacher for 40 years and finishing up as full time state president of the teachers’ union, I can make a few points.

    We have had a serious shortage of properly trained teachers of maths and science for decades. It has never been solved for a two main reasons – one is that people with maths and science degrees can earn more in other jobs now because of the huge employment market in IT and finance, and secondly they go to other jobs because teaching in many of our schools has become extremely challenging because of the huge change in student behaviour and attitudes in the last few decades.

    The consequence of this is that many schools have had to put unqualified teachers in front of maths and science classes and their lack of relevant training means they cannot teach to as high a standard or engender the interest a trained teacher can. Many schools have had to do away entirely with practical classes because of this and also because of the poor behaviour in our challenging schools.

    Secondly, we are now employing teachers who came through this inadequate system in maths and science, and also through a system where spelling, grammar, punctuation were taught haphazardly and look and say reading methods banned phonics. And a system which had no compulsory common curriculum. Requiring teachers to take tests to ensure levels of literacy and numeracy surely attest to this – in the past, after matriculating and gaining a degree, few trainee teachers needed to take such a test.

    Finally, it’s pointless quoting other countries’ standards – Singapore has no private schools and all money goes to a uniform state system where those with ability are quickly sorted from the less able who are directed into vocational training. As the wife of a professor from the Singapore university once said to me: Our parents would be ashamed to send their children to a private school – it would mean they were not good enough for the state system. Also the culture is entirely different – application and good behaviour are expected by parents. Much the same applies to Finland which is also much quoted. They has a relatively small heterogeneous population, no private schools and a totally different attitude to education. They also have a phonetic language which is much easier to learn than English.

    I don’t see anything much changing in Australian education unless we can encourage more high achieving people into teaching and that would only be possible if we paid them the sort of money and advancement they can earn more easily in banking and IT. I don’t see parenting styles changing soon either, where children are indulged, not made to obey rules and allowed to do as they like with less respect for those in authority.

    And we have a large degree of disadvantage and poverty which can only be addressed by more jobs, better health services, both mental and physical and something is done about the increased use of drugs and alcohol. I’m painting a fairly pessimistic picture but I think we have to face the facts. No Australian government of any colour is going to give the amounts of money needed to address the current problems.

    • Jacqueline  

      …….’they have’…….not ‘they has’…….
      And you taught for 40 years’?

      What a joke!
      You obviously didn’t even bother to ‘read back’ what you’d written!

    • I agree completely.

      I was devastated to realise how little I made as a teacher (Maths/Science – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Geography, Biology, IT) compared to my peers. I persevered because I loved teaching, but many of my peers didn’t.

      Another point is how little so many Australians value education.

      Funding? Equitable funding doesn’t exist. Equal funding does, but it’s not equitable.

  2. Marissa  

    The various Education curricula in this Country, has been declining rapidly since the early ’70’s.

    Prior to that, what was taught enabled people to obtain good jobs’, because they could read, write, spell, ie had an excellent knowledge of the English Language, which we speak, & do maths’, sans calculator.

    One only has to watch tv show, ‘Hot Seat Millionaire’, where Science, Geography, English Literature, & very few Maths’ questions’ are even asked, because nobody knows the answers’.

    What was called ‘General Knowledge’, most of the contestants’ can’t correctly answer the simplest question, eg ‘what does cobbler do’?

    Get ‘back to basics’, & things may improve, although with children these days’, having their heads stuck watching computer screens’, not books’, I don’t like the chances.

    As for the lowest social-economic group, as is said, ‘you can’t put in what God left out’…………

  3. Rod Tonkin  

    This is a poor reflection on the massive real increases in education funding since the 1990s. In any other business the management would have been replaced for such poor performance. There are no poor soldiers, only poor generals.

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