The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data shows the performance of Australia’s students has remained steady despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
An analysis of the data by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found student performance across various domains including reading, mathematics, and science has remained steady despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Encouragingly, this is the second consecutive PISA cycle in which Australia’s performance in mathematics and reading has shown stability, spanning from 2015 to 2018 and from 2018 to 2022, with student outcomes in science also remaining similar to those in 2018.
However, the report found that while Australia’s overall education performance is above the OECD average in maths, science and literacy, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to fall behind in maths, science and reading.
Fairer school funding can turn the tables
Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said the PISA assessment highlights that Australia has a good education system, but it can be a lot better and fairer.
“We have to fix the funding gap and fix this education gap,” Clare said. “That’s why I want the school funding agreement we negotiate next year to tie funding to the sort of things that help children who fall behind to catch up, keep up and finish school.”
ACER Senior Research Fellow and report co-author Lisa De Bortoli said while there is good news in that the long-term decline in the achievement of Australian 15-year-olds has slowed and performances have levelled out in recent years, glaring problems remain.
“There are still concerns about the fact that in 2022, about half of Australian 15-year-olds continue to perform below the expected standard in mathematics, with one in four lacking the mathematical knowledge and skills they will need in everyday life,” De Bertoli told The Educator.
The report found that just over half of Australian students achieved the National Proficient Standard, with 51% in math, 58% in science, and 57% in reading, which indicates that a substantial number of students are still struggling to demonstrate more than basic skills in these areas.
“Our education systems should identify where individual students need help and be able to support their progress from each point in their learning, or we are likely to keep seeing students falling behind.”
Substantial reforms are needed
Pat Murphy, the Australian Government Primary Principals Association (AGPPA) president said systemic changes are needed if Australia’s results are to see meaningful improvements.
“Although PISA measures the performance of high school students, we have seen these results coming for a long time due to the underinvestment in primary schools,” Murphy told The Educator.
“When successful governments only address the symptomatic rather than underlying cause, nothing will change, and Australia’s results will continue their long, slow decline.”
Murphy said while public primary schools are “the bedrock of our education system”, educating almost 70% of students in Australia, only in the ACT are students funded to the 100% of the School Resourcing Standard (SRS).
“Therefore, it is little wonder we have seen no improvement in the results of Australian Year 9 students,” Murphy said.
“Countries that have invested in primary education such as Estonia have seen their PISA results continually improve. Will Australia learn from this example or try to continue to do things on the cheap?”
Murphy said Australian education now faces “a critical moment”.
“Do we invest as a nation in primary education or continue on our current downward trajectory and perish into the PISA abyss?”
Australia can learn from top education systems
ACER Chief Executive Professor Geoff Masters also highlighted the need for “substantial reform” to elevate student performance.
“Many top-performing school systems, such as Estonia and Korea, have focused their improvement efforts on transforming the frameworks within which teachers and schools operate,” Professor Masters, who recently conducted a study on five school systems that have excelled in PISA, said.
“Their approach prioritises the development of deeper conceptual understanding and students’ abilities to apply their knowledge across various contexts.”
Professor Masters added that this cycle’s “promising” report on PISA 2022 outcomes underscores both the progress made by Australian students and the imperative for continued efforts to enhance educational outcomes in the country.
Reflecting on the latest PISA findings and the ongoing challenges faced by Australia’s schools, Murphy emphasised the need for significant curriculum changes.
“These PISA results must be a wake-up call for the country that now is the time to develop a dedicated integrated primary curriculum that focuses on the core competencies and not a subject based approach.”