The latest international test results show Australia's education performance has stagnated over the past 16 years while many countries have improved. The results reflect Australia's failure to address the extent of disadvantage in education.
The new results, and those before it from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment, confirm Australia's highly inequitable education system. They reinforce the case for action from the Gonski report recommendation to boost funding for disadvantaged students.
High proportions of students are achieving below the minimum international proficiency standard in reading, mathematics and science in year 4 and 8. In year 4, a quarter to nearly a third of students are below the minimum standard. In year 8, a third or more are below the standard.
Only in year 4 mathematics was the proportion above the minimum standard increased since 1995. The proportions for year 4 science and year 8 mathematics and sciences have not changed. Australia participated in the year 4 reading test for the first time in 2011.
Australia has one of the biggest spreads in test scores between the top and bottom 5 per cent of students among Western and east Asian countries. The spread in year 4 reading, mathematics and science and in year 8 science was exceeded significantly in only two or three of more than 40 participating countries. Only in year 8 mathematics was the gap comparable to other countries.
The gaps are strongly associated with family background.
We all know about the low results of indigenous students and the huge achievement gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous students. They are confirmed once more by the new results. The mean scores for indigenous students are far below those of non-indigenous students. Half or more of year 4 indigenous students and 60 per cent or more of year 8 students do not achieve the international proficiency benchmarks. As bad as these results are, they are just as appalling for low socio-economic status (SES) students. The average scores of year 8 students whose parents did not complete secondary school are almost identical to that of indigenous students. The scores of students whose parents did not complete secondary school have fallen significantly since 2007.
The mathematics score of students who have at least one parent with a university degree was a 132 points higher than that of students whose parents did not complete secondary school. This achievement gap was nearly double the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students. In science, the gap was 134 points. Huge proportions of low SES students are not achieving minimum international proficiency levels. More than 70 per cent did not achieve the minimum mathematics standard compared with just 14 per cent of students of a parent who had a university degree. About two-thirds did not achieve the minimum science standard compared with 10 per cent of students of a parent who had a university degree. The proportions of low SES students below the minimum international standards in year 8 mathematics and science have increased significantly since 2007.
Not surprisingly, students in schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students scored much higher than students in schools with more disadvantaged than affluent students.
There are also large differences in the results between remote area and metropolitan students that have not decreased in recent years. However, the differences between students from English speaking and non-English speaking backgrounds are not as severe.
These achievement gaps are a social calamity. A shameful social injustice is being perpetrated on the disadvantaged in Australia. It effectively denies them access to further education, well-paying jobs, positions of power and influence in society and an extended healthy life. The failure to reduce disadvantage in education also has broader costs for society. It means more government spending on healthcare, social welfare and crime reduction. It also means a less skilled workforce that in turn means lower productivity growth and living standards.
The gaps are a condemnation of government education policies stretching over two decades. Successive federal and state governments have promoted choice, autonomy and competition between schools. Governments have supported the privatisation of education to the extent that Australia now has one of the most privatised education systems in the world. It is now clear that these policies have completely failed.
Federal and state government funding programs for disadvantaged students have only touched the surface. Too many of the funding increases of the past two decades have been misdirected. Huge funding increases have gone to the richest private schools in the country instead of disadvantaged schools, whether government or private.
Millions and millions of dollars have been wasted on indiscriminate class-size reductions that took no account of need. Disadvantaged schools still have the same, or larger, class sizes as schools on the north shore of Sydney and the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
The Gonski report offers an opportunity to make a new start. It highlighted the inequities in education between rich and poor and recommended a funding increase of $6.5 billion for disadvantaged students. Much of this increase should go to government schools because they enrol about 80 per cent or more of low SES, indigenous and remote area students.
However, the Gonski recommendations have been stuck in interminable inter-governmental negotiations. The latest test results demand immediate action by federal, state and territory governments. Gonski is a good economic and social investment as well as a good education investment. Governments should stop their incessant wrangling and just get on with Gonski.
Trevor Cobbold is the national convener of Save Our Schools.