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Socioeconomic factors and school sector influence tertiary entrance scores

Media release 4 minute read

Literacy and numeracy achievement in Year 9, socioeconomic background of parents and school sector are important factors related to the tertiary entrance performance of Australian students, according to a report released today by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

The report, Tertiary Entrance Performance: The Role of Student Background and School Factors, by ACER researchers Dr Gary Marks, Dr Julie McMillan and Ms Kylie Hillman, examines the tertiary entrance performance of students in Year 12 in 1998. It investigates the relationship between Equivalent National Tertiary Entrance Rank (or ENTER scores) and a variety of educational, socioeconomic, gender, school sector, demographic, ethnicity and psychological factors.

Deputy Director of ACER, Dr John Ainley, said the report is the most broad ranging and thorough investigation of tertiary entrance performance conducted in Australia.

"It has contributed to a better understanding of the way in which a plethora of factors influence tertiary entrance performance. From a policy perspective, it is important to understand which influences are weak and which are strong, so that policies can be directed at influences that can make a difference," Dr Ainley said.

The study uses data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) project, which is jointly managed by ACER and the Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST).

The report focuses on a national cohort of 13 613 students who were in Year 9 in 1995 and examines their experiences up to 2001 as they move from school into post-compulsory education, training and work. It is the most up-to-date and detailed information on recent school leavers in Australia.

The major findings from the report are:

Year 9 achievement in literacy and numeracy

  • The strongest influence on ENTER scores is literacy and numeracy achievement in Year 9.
  • Performance in numeracy has a consistently stronger relationship with tertiary entrance performance than literacy.

Socioeconomic background

  • The three major dimensions of socioeconomic background – parental education, wealth and occupational status – are all correlated with ENTER scores.
  • Students whose parents are professionals and, to a lesser extent, managers exhibit higher ENTER scores.
  • After taking into account students’ levels of literacy and numeracy, the influence of socioeconomic background is considerably weaker.


  • On average, females achieve slightly higher tertiary entrance scores. However, gender differences vary from state to state. In NSW, females scored substantially higher than males, whereas in other states the differences were smaller, and in some instances, males slightly outperformed females.
  • Girls experience greater achievement growth (that is, improvement in academic performance between Year 9 and Year 12) than boys.

School sector

  • On average, students attending independent schools have higher ENTER scores than students attending Catholic schools, who in turn have higher mean ENTER scores than students attending government schools.
  • The relationship between students’ socioeconomic background and tertiary entrance performance does not differ substantially between government, independent and Catholic schools.
  • When taking into account the social and academic mix of students (i.e. their socioeconomic background and earlier literacy and numeracy levels), students from independent schools still show higher ENTER scores, although the gap is halved.
  • The gap in tertiary entrance performance between government and Catholic school students, was only marginally reduced when taking into account the social and academic mix of students.


  • Non-metropolitan students’ tertiary entrance performance is marginally lower than that of metropolitan students.
  • Regional differences in tertiary entrance scores are smaller than regional differences in Year 12 and university participation.


  • The distribution of ENTER scores for students with fathers born in non-English speaking countries is wider than that for students with fathers born in Australia.
  • The average ENTER score varies across ethnic groups. Some groups perform substantially higher than students with Australian-born fathers and some significantly lower.
  • Some ethnic groups are performing at higher levels than would be expected given their prior achievement levels and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, the high performance of Asian students is not explained by differences in their socioeconomic background or prior achievement.

Dr Ainley said that although the report identified a number of factors which play a significant role in student ENTER score, it is likely that motivation, perseverance, study habits, interest and enthusiasm also influence student performance. Some schools in all sectors appear to be more effective than others in lifting student performance above expectations.

"Students should not see their performance as determined by their social background and schooling. There is much more that students can do to improve, or impair, their performance," Dr Ainley said.

Marks, G., McMillan, J., Hillman, K. (2001). Tertiary Education Performance: The Role of Student Background and School Factors, LSAY Research Report 22, Melbourne: ACER.

Report also available in print from ACER Press
Phone: (03) 9277 5447

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