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Female students similarly reported less positive attitudes toward mathematics and science than their male counterparts.
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Educational aspirations of disadvantaged students in decline

Research 5 minute read

New analysis of data from the 2019 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reveals the proportion of Australian students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds that aspire to complete tertiary education has fallen over the last six years.

In an article published in Teacher, ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson highlights the ‘striking differences’ in educational aspirations for advantaged and disadvantaged students revealed in the new report.

Survey responses from a nationally representative sample of 14 950 Australian students from 571 Australian schools collected for the 2019 cycle of TIMSS revealed around three-quarters (77 per cent) of students from an advantaged background expected to attend university, compared to one-fifth (20 per cent) of those from a disadvantaged background.

The proportion of disadvantaged students expecting an undergraduate degree to be the highest education level they will achieve has declined sharply since the previous cycle of TIMSS, from 16 per cent in 2015 down to 8 per cent in 2019.

Over the same period, the proportion of disadvantaged students who did not expect to complete any formal education beyond secondary school increased by 10 percentage points. In 2015, just over half of Australia’s disadvantaged students (52 per cent) expected to only complete secondary school but by 2019 this had increased to almost two thirds of disadvantaged students (62 per cent).

In contrast, the proportion of students from advantaged backgrounds planning to only complete secondary school has remained relatively stable at 10 per cent.

According to Dr Thomson, lower educational aspirations among disadvantaged students are probably ‘a reflection of the reality of lower achievement levels and poorer attitudes towards maths and science of disadvantaged students in Australia’.

Just 17 per cent of disadvantaged students achieved the high or advanced benchmarks in TIMSS 2019, compared to 51 per cent of students from advantaged backgrounds. Disadvantaged students liked mathematics and science less, were less confident learning these subjects, and valued mathematics and science to a lesser extent than did their advantaged peers.

Female students similarly reported less positive attitudes toward mathematics and science than their male counterparts, but girls who had the same level of confidence, liking or valuing of mathematics or science as boys scored at the same level, or higher than, their male peers.

As Dr Thomson noted, ‘Of concern is that – unlike the achievement parity between males and females – whether they liked a subject or not, were confident or not, or valued it or not, disadvantaged students’ average mathematics or science achievement was substantially lower than that of advantaged students.’

Dr Thomson said a further explanation of disadvantaged students’ lower educational aspirations is that a range of additional barriers has meant that disadvantaged students hold less positive views about tertiary education and are more likely than their advantaged peers to want to (or have to) earn an income immediately after completing secondary school. ■

Read the full article:
‘Student educational aspirations and attitudes towards STEM’, written by Sue Thomson and published in Teacher magazine, is available at

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