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Beyond PISA: Improving student outcomes
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Beyond PISA: Improving student outcomes

Research 5 minute read

The latest PISA results indicate that we must focus on strategies to improve what happens in every classroom, every day of the school week if we are to improve student outcomes, says Geoff Masters.

The OECD’s recently released PISA study provides important insights into the state of schooling in Australia.

PISA surveyed 14 500 15-year-olds in all school sectors across all states and territories. The study had a particular focus on mathematics learning, but gathered information broadly about students’ achievements and experiences of school.

Among Australian 15-year-olds, one in five reported being unhappy at school and feeling that they did not belong. Thirty-two per cent admitted skipping at least one day of school in the two weeks prior to the survey. The corresponding percentage for Shanghai-China was one per cent. And more than 40 per cent of Australian students described classroom ‘noise and disorder’ in ‘most or every’ lesson. 

Worryingly, many students reported low levels of interest in learning mathematics. This was particularly the case among girls, with only 46 per cent expressing interest in this subject and a mere 33 per cent saying that they enjoyed mathematics. The corresponding percentages for all students in Singapore were 77 per cent and 72 per cent.

These low levels of interest were accompanied by low levels of achievement. In mathematics, Australia was outperformed by sixteen countries, including Poland and Estonia, and was at the same level as Vietnam, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. By 15 years of age, the average student in Australia is the equivalent of three school years behind the average student in Shanghai-China.

PISA also found large differences in achievement levels within Australia. Indigenous students, on average, are two-and-a-half years behind non-Indigenous students. And students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile are two-and-a-half years behind students in the highest quartile.

And if this were not enough, PISA shows Australian mathematics and reading performances in decline. The largest declines over the past decade have been in South Australia where students also have the least positive attitudes to mathematics learning.

So what will it take to turn things around?

Increasingly, Australian governments are looking to ‘macro’ solutions – more investment, smaller class sizes, greater principal autonomy, transparency, accountability, parental choice, standardised testing, school incentives, performance pay, common curricula, teaching standards – solutions often imported from other countries grappling with similar challenges. However, macro solutions of this kind are effective only to the extent that they connect with, and promote, ‘micro’ change in schools.

By ‘micro’ I mean the interaction between a teacher and a student. Research suggests that improved learning depends on teachers engaging learners: connecting with their interests and motivations; understanding where individuals are in their learning; identifying and addressing specific learning needs; diagnosing what learners know and can do, and what they still misunderstand; working with students to set clear personal goals for further learning; jointly monitoring learning progress; and recognising and celebrating the progress that individual learners make. International experience shows that macro solutions are weak drivers of improved student performance unless they result in more effective teaching practices of this kind.

There are several essential questions that need to be asked of any proposed improvement strategy:

  • How likely is it to lead to more effective classroom teaching and learning?
  • Will it assist teachers to develop better understandings of individual learning needs?
  • Will it build teachers’ capacities to meet learners at their points of need?
  • By what mechanisms will it do this?

When tested against these questions, it is clear why many current educational ‘solutions’ are failing to improve performance in our schools: they simply don’t produce changes in classrooms.

Equally important is the question of whether particular macro strategies could be undermining effective classroom practice. For example, in each year of school, the difference between the least and most advanced students represents about six years of school, making it imperative that teachers understand where individual students are in their progress and target teaching accordingly. Does the macro strategy of designing a standard curriculum for each year of school encourage the teaching and grading of all students against the same expectations, thereby making it less likely that individual learning needs will be identified and addressed?

There are no simple solutions to the challenges PISA has identified. A starting point is a deeper analysis of the effectiveness of current improvement strategies in promoting day-to-day classroom practices that we know make a difference.

Further information:
ACER works with systems and schools in a number of ways to support school and system improvement based on the National School Improvement Tool (NSIT) Framework. To find out more about ACER's school improvement services visit <>.

The full report, PISA 2012: How Australia measures up, by Sue Thomson, Lisa DeBortoli, and Sarah Buckley, and further information about PISA is available from the Australian PISA website <>.

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