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PISA 2018: Australian student performance in long-term decline

Media release 5 minute read

Australia’s results fall to OECD average for the first time, in mathematics.

7pm, Tuesday 3 December 2019: A report released today paints a picture of long-term decline in Australian students’ reading, mathematics and science skills – and, for the first time in the assessment’s history, we have fallen to meet an OECD average, in mathematics performance.

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is managed in Australia by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). PISA National Project Manager, ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson, said Australia had always exceeded OECD averages until 2018.

“We are a developed, wealthy Western country with justifiably high aspirations for our students so we must take notice of these results,” said Dr Thomson.

Dr Thomson said the results needed to be considered in the context of Australia’s relative maths performance over time. Five countries whose mathematics performance was on par with Australia’s in their first PISA assessment now outperform Australia; and, of 16 countries whose maths performance was lower than Australia’s in their first PISA assessment, nine now outperform Australia and seven are now on par with Australia.

“There is a pattern of improvement in maths performance in comparable countries that just isn’t replicated in Australia,” Dr Thomson said.

Australia’s maths decline

The only country whose maths performance has fallen further than Australia’s is Finland – although the country still outperforms Australia. Maths performance is down in all states and territories, with significant declines observed in SA, NSW, Tas, WA and the ACT in particular, and the smallest decline recorded in Vic.

Furthermore, a significant gender gap in maths performance in favour of male students has returned, despite the gap being closed in 2015, and our highest performing students have recorded worrying levels of decline.

PISA is a major international measurement of how well prepared students nearing the end of compulsory schooling are to use knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges. It assesses the reading, mathematics and science literacy of 15-year-old students and has been conducted every three years since 2000. PISA 2018 was conducted in Australia by ACER, which publishes the latest results on behalf of Australian Government and state and territory governments.

Other key findings:

  • Performance has declined in Australia in the long-term by the equivalent of more than a full school year in maths and almost a full school year in reading and science.*
  • The highest performing OECD countries were Estonia in reading, Japan in mathematics and Estonia in science.
  • The highest performer in PISA 2018, in all domains, was the grouped provinces of Beijing–Shanghai–Jiangsu–Zhejiang (China), followed by Singapore.
  • The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was the highest performer in Australia across domains; however, average performance in the long-term has dropped in maths in all states and territories, in reading in all states and territories (except Vic, Qld and the NT), and in science in all states and territories (except Vic and the NT).*
  • Average performance in all domains has dropped over the long-term across all school sectors, socioeconomic quartiles, and the various cultural groups assessed.*
  • Non-Indigenous students continue to outperform their Indigenous peers but, while non-Indigenous student performance has declined in all domains over the long-term, Indigenous student performance has not changed significantly.*
  • More metropolitan school students attained the National Proficient Standard in all three domains than peers in provincial and remote schools. However, performance is down across all three domains and in all locations since 2015.

Australia’s performance internationally

More than 600 000 students in 79 countries and economies took part in PISA 2018, including a nationally representative sample of 14 273 Australian students in 740 schools. Each cycle focuses on a major domain, allowing students extra time to complete this section; in 2018, reading was the focus.





Significantly higher than Australia




At a similar level to Australia




Significantly lower than Australia





Table 1: Australia’s performance compared to other countries/economies**

By comparison to the grouped provinces of Beijing–Shanghai–Jiangsu–Zhejiang (China), Australian students performed at a level roughly one-and-a-half school years lower in reading literacy, around three-and-a-half school years lower in mathematical literacy, and around three years lower in scientific literacy. Compared to the highest performing country, Singapore, Australian students performed at a level one-and-one-third of a school year lower in reading, around three school years lower in mathematics, and around one-and-three-quarter school years lower in science.

Dr Thomson said the latest results show a continuing drop in the performance of Australian students over time.

“We have observed continuing falls in our results since PISA began in 2000 and yet again the data tell us we have failed to lift our performance,” Dr Thomson said. “This is about much more than just ‘test-taking’ – it’s about how well we are preparing Australia’s students for adult life.”

PISA 2018 was conducted by ACER in Australia on behalf of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with funding from the Australian and state and territory governments.

The Australian reports, PISA 2018 In Brief I: Student performance and PISA 2018: Reporting Australia’s Results. Volume I: Student performance by Sue Thomson, Lisa De Bortoli, Catherine Underwood and Marina Schmid, were released to coincide with the launch of the international PISA study by the OECD in Paris.

More information can be found at

* Measured from the first cycle in which a subject was the major focus domain (rotating through domains with each cycle); reading was the major domain in 2000, mathematics in 2003 and science in 2006.

** Based on available data: 77 countries for reading literacy and 78 countries for mathematical and scientific literacy.


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