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Declining PISA outcomes: Time to stop the slide

Declining PISA outcomes: Time to stop the slide

Research 5 minute read

Sue Thomson discusses the implications of Australia's results from the latest international assessment of mathematics, science and reading.

With the release of results from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has labelled Australia as having a ‘High Quality-High Equity’ education system, scoring above the OECD average in each of these categories.

But is ‘High Quality’ a term you would use to describe a country in which 42 per cent of its 15-year-olds fail to meet national minimum standards in maths, and 36 per cent per cent do not reach the same benchmark in reading? Or a country in which reading literacy and maths achievement has been in decline for the past decade?

Similarly, does ‘High Equity’ adequately describe a country in which the equivalent of around two-and-a-half years of schooling separates the mathematical, reading and scientific literacy scores of students in the highest socioeconomic quartile and students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile? Or where significant gaps separate the achievement of students based on their gender, location and cultural background?

Far from being complacent about being categorised as High Quality-High Equity, these findings show that Australia has cause for some concern.

The real take-home message from PISA is that Australia must do better.

The Council of Australian Governments has set a goal for Australian students to excel by international standards. There is some way to go, if ‘excelling by international standards’ means performing to a standard similar to the top countries or participating economies – Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Japan and Finland.

Australia’s declining achievement has been fuelled by both a fall in the number of students achieving at higher levels and a rise in the number of students achieving at lower levels. This backwards slide has allowed other countries to leapfrog over us. Poland has been steadily improving since 2000 and is now ahead of Australia in maths, while Ireland has successfully reversed its own downward trend and now outperforms Australia in reading.

In terms of equity, Australia is not achieving its goal of providing all students with similar opportunities to benefit from education, regardless of their gender or background. Australia has slipped backwards to the type of gender disparity that was seen decades ago. PISA 2012 also shows that Indigenous students, rural students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to achieve at lower levels – and many face the double liability of coming from a disadvantaged background and attending a disadvantaged school.

Australia must strive to improve outcomes for all students – getting the lowest achievers up to an acceptable standard for a wealthy first-world country and extending the higher achievers to lead the country in terms of innovation and development. The goal is attainable, but research into what actually works in changing outcomes is essential.

Improving quality and equity requires a long-term view and a broad perspective. PISA has alerted the Australian school system to a decline in reading literacy achievement and now a significant decline in mathematical literacy achievement.

Australia is already making efforts to improve the quality and effectiveness of classroom teaching for improved student outcomes through work on the Australian Curriculum, national professional standards for teachers and school leaders, coordinated approaches to school improvement that focus on practices that specifically enhance the quality of teaching and learning, and a more fine-grained approach to monitoring school systems in terms of student outcomes through the National Assessment Program – but we need to do more.

To provide more equitable learning opportunities for all students we need to increase social inclusion – and reduce socioeconomic segregation – in our school system. That means ensuring that all of our schools provide high-quality teaching and foster a culture of high expectations for all students, alongside the development of practices to foster excellence in all schools in order to harness the influence of students on each other as a valuable learning resource. 

We need to keep our focus on continuous improvement in teacher quality. That includes developing measures to ensure high-quality candidates enter teacher education courses. It also includes the provision of ongoing, high-quality and evidence-based professional learning for teachers, especially in terms of high-level skills in assessment and the analysis of data in order to focus on each student’s learning and the best next teaching steps to advance that learning.

Participation in international studies such as PISA enable us to stop and look at how Australia's education system 'stacks up' against those of other countries – our trading partners and others.  The findings of the two most recent studies show that levels of achievement in both reading and mathematics have declined.  The areas of particular concern are clear, and if Australia is to fulfil the promise of a world-class education for all students, action needs to be taken now.

Further information:
This article is based on an opinion piece by Dr Sue Thomson, published in The Conversation on 3 December 2013.

Read the full report:
PISA 2012: How Australia measures up, by Sue Thomson, Lisa De Bortoli and Sarah Buckley, is available from

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