The triennial release of PISA results typically results in a flurry of articles from the press condemning the state of education in Australia. Reports inevitably lead to league tables, proclaiming how spectacularly other countries outperform Australia in education. I’ve previously spoken of the ‘crisis’ in mathematics education, and from media reports of the results ‘crisis’ seems the only logical conclusion to draw. However, I have somewhat revised my thinking on this issue based on a few key points.
Around 14,500 year 9 students from 775 schools across Australia participated in PISA in 2012. PISA assesses mathematical, scientific and reading literacy, and problem-solving skills. It includes a 30 minute questionnaire of student demographics, motivations for learning, and attitudes towards schooling.
Data from the 2012 PISA results indicates Australia performed at equal 17th in mathematics, equal 8th in science and equal 10th in reading out of 65 OECD countries. Between 2003 and 2009 the proportion of students achieving in the top band, and Australia’s relative ranking declined, with the portion of Australian students scoring in the top band, Level 5 and above, dropped from 19.9% to 16.5%. In 2012 it had fallen to 14.8%. Evidently, there are fewer students achieving in the top bands. Also concerning, is the number of students achieving below a band 2 in mathematics literacy: increasing from 13% in 2003 to 20% in 2012.
However, when discussing these results it’s important to bear in mind a few points. Firstly, we are still above the OECD average in all areas of the test (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-overview.pdf). Secondly, in 2003 41 countries (including 30 OCD member countries) participated in the test. In 2012 34 OECD countries (65 countries overall) participated. It is logical to assume that with more countries participating in the programme, some countries will naturally do better than Australia: hence a direct comparison of rankings is not completely valid. In addition, we must take note that some of the higher-ranking ‘countries’ (Shanghai-China, Hong-Kong-China, Chinese Tapei, Macao-China and so forth) could be considered cities, rather than discrete countries. Finally, it is important to note that PISA, like all standardised testing, tells us how students score on one particular test on one particular day. It provides a snapshot, but an incomplete picture of education in a particular country. It neglects to address the nuances in education across countries and states.
One of the most striking issues from PISA 2012 is the issue of equity in Australian education.
A press release from Education Minister Chris Pyne’s office stated “We must take note of the decline in our international performance. PISA shows us that our education system is high-equity where socio-economic status matters less when compared to other OECD countries” and that “PISA has found that in Australia it matters more which teacher you are allocated as opposed to which school you attend.”
Mr Pyne, I beg to differ.
It is difficult to comprehend how education in Australia can be labelled ‘equitable’ when the comparison is to selected countries only. When the reality is that students in the highest socioeconomic group are the equivalent of two and a half years in front academically of students from the lowest socioeconomic group.
The impact that SES appears to have on achievement in Australia is deeply concerning and inequitable. Equity is one of the most significant challenges in contemporary education in Australia. Students from the lowest SES quartile are eight times more likely than the top quartile to have failed to meet the most basic levels of proficiency in PISA testing. Indigenous students generally reported lower levels of educational attainment than non-Indigenous students, and rural students’ performance on PISA was significantly lower than metropolitan students on 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012 PISA tests. This is completely at odds with the “Aussie” notion of a fair go and equal opportunity for all.
PISA 2003 results revealed that self-efficacy is the strongest predictor of student achievement in maths. Again adding to the inequity in Australia, students of high SES have been shown to have higher self-efficacy than students of low SES.
However, in considering this we need to acknowledge the fairly significant factor of the remoteness of central Australia. We have to consider if we are really comparing apples to apples, when considering that the same test is sat by people from all over the world. How valid is it to compare New York’s Upper East Side to central Australia to students in Singapore?
Poland has improved rankings by shifting policy focus to matters of inequity, and similar measures should be applied in Australia. Gonski funding targets issues of inequity. We know that increased funding can improve student outcomes and that funding should be directed to schools of the greatest need. The Government’s double-backflip on delivery of funding is a strong indicator that Mr Pyne is in no way interested in solving the equity crisis in Australian education. (or something?)
Mr Pyne, in his press release, is proponent of the belief that “All the evidence shows that better outcomes are achieved by lifting the quality of teaching, ensuring we have a robust curriculum, expanding principal autonomy and encouraging more parental engagement.”
Pyne’s statement frustrated me greatly. Yes, I believe that changes need to be made in education in Australia. Yes, teacher quality is important. Studies have shown that teachers are the most significant impact on student achievement after students themselves. Improvements need to be made to teacher training: if I hear one more beginning teacher tell me they’re going to retrain in maths so they can get a job I’m going to scream. Pyne is on record as saying he favours a back-to-basics, direct instruction approach to learning, and that as Minister for Education he is keen to let everyone know ‘there is new management in town.’ Yet Pyne’s decisions seem to be based on his own (usually misguided) opinions, rather than fact or consultation with educators.
Many concerns have been raised by teachers as to how content-heavy the mathematics curriculum in Australia. Concerns of ‘too much to teach, too little time’ are a real concern when implementing reform. I shudder to think how we could get through even MORE material in order to achieve this ‘robust’ curriculum.
However, it is important that this does not distract from the real issues raised by PISA 2012.
If the take-home message for Mr Pyne is that Australia is a country of ‘high quality high equity education,’ he is gravely mistaken. The real take-home message is that as a country we must do better to target our most disadvantaged students. This starts, as always, with better funding.