Tuesday, 4 Dec 2001

Australian 15-year-olds have achieved outstanding results in the first major international survey of reading, mathematical and scientific literacy skills to be undertaken by the OECD, according to the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) compared the performance of Australian 15-year-olds with the performance of 15-year-olds in 31 other countries, including USA, Canada, UK, many European nations, Japan, Korea and Russia.

265 000 students from 32 countries took part in the first PISA survey in 2000 in key areas thought to be essential for full participation in adult life. Twenty-eight of the countries, including Australia, are OECD members. Four other countries participated at their own request. In Australia, 6200 students from 231 government, Catholic and independent schools in all States and Territories took part.

Students answered a two-hour test and a background questionnaire about themselves, and principals answered a questionnaire about their schools.

PISA was implemented for the OECD by a consortium of research organisations led by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in Melbourne. The Australian component of PISA was also implemented by ACER and was jointly funded by the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments.

PISA is particularly significant because the tests were developed by international experts to see how well students could apply their knowledge and skills to real-life problems and situations. Results show how well students can analyse, reason and explain their ideas – skills that will be important to them in their adult lives.

ACER Executive Director, Professor Geoff Masters, said the study provides unique information about how well Australia is preparing our young people for life after school.

"The findings are highly encouraging. There are very few countries anywhere in the world providing 15-year-olds with reading, mathematical and scientific literacy skills above those being achieved in Australia," Professor Masters said.

Highlights of the Australian results:

  • Only one country, Finland, performed significantly better than Australia in reading literacy;
  • Only one country, Japan, performed significantly better than Australia in mathematical literacy;
  • Only two countries, Korea and Japan, performed significantly better than Australia in scientific literacy;
  • In reading literacy (the major focus of PISA 2000), Australia had one of the highest proportions of students of any country at the highest proficiency level (Level 5) and one of the lowest proportions of students at the lowest level (Below Level 1);
  • Within Australia, the ACT consistently achieved the highest results and the NT the lowest, but there were other states with results that were not significantly different from the ACT’s or NT’s. There was a large difference between the ACT and the NT in the reading proficiency levels attained. Interstate differences in mathematics and science performance were less than they were in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results reported in 1996;
  • All Australian States and Territories performed at or above the OECD average;
  • Australia’s best students in each of the three domains achieved on a par with the best students in other high-achieving countries. This finding was maintained within all parts of Australia except the NT. Results for the best students were particularly outstanding in the ACT for all three domains, in WA for mathematical literacy and scientific literacy and in SA for scientific literacy; and
  • There was no significant difference between Australian boys’ and girls’ performance in mathematical and scientific literacy, but girls performed significantly better than boys in reading literacy, as they did in every country participating in PISA. Few countries had significant gender differences in scientific literacy but boys performed better than girls in mathematical literacy in 16 countries.

Areas of concern from the Australian results are:

  • The relatively low performance of boys in reading, particularly in relation to narrative texts;
  • Boys from disadvantaged backgrounds were twice as likely as girls from similar backgrounds to be in the lowest quarter of reading scores;
  • The relatively low performance of Indigenous students overall in the three domains;
  • The difference in reading performance between students according to their socioeconomic backgrounds; but
  • Although the above groups had lower results on average, there were many individuals with good to very good results