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ACT bucks trend as Australian education results plummet


Emma Macdonald

Professor Geoff Masters.

Professor Geoff Masters. Photo: James Davies

The most comprehensive international comparison of student results in reading, maths and science ever undertaken has plummeted Australia to the middle pack of nearly 50 countries which participated.

But the ACT has topped the nation in every test field and if its results are separated from the rest of Australia’s, it has placed in the top 10 in the world across all year levels of reading, maths and science - exceeding every international benchmark for minimum required standards.

The Australian Council for Education Research, which coordinates Australia’s test participation, tied the drop in performance to teachers lacking qualifications and expertise in maths and science, schools lacking resources and students being disengaged from maths and science learning, or being subject to bullying.

For the first time last year, 300,000 Year 4 students concurrently took part in the International Reading Literacy Study and 600,000 Years 4 and 8 students took part in the Trends in International  Mathematics and Science Study across nearly 50 countries. 

Australia was significantly outperformed by 21 countries in Year 4 reading and maths and science performance has largely stagnated over the past 16 years.  The United States and England performed in the top quartile across all measures.

Chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, said  “To say the results are disappointing is an understatement”.

Australia performed worst in reading, with about one quarter of students not meeting the intermediate benchmark – the standard generally considered in international achievement studies to be the minimally acceptable level.

Australia was outperformed in reading by countries such as Slovenia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.

The report found almost one third of Australian students reported not being engaged in their mathematics and science lessons.

In Year 4, Australia came 25th in science and 18th in maths but by Year 8 it had improved to come 12th in science and 11th in maths out of 50 countries.

The results, issued on Tuesday night, revealed the Asian nations of Korea, Singapore and Japan were in the top five across reading, maths and science.

But the picture is far less bleak in the ACT, where local students significantly outperformed the rest of the country and, significantly, achieved above the international benchmark on every measure.

In Year 4 reading, 87 per cent of Canberra students met or exceeded the international intermediate benchmark compared with 66 per cent in the Northern Territory (the lowest Australian result), a national average of 76 per cent and an international average of 80 per cent.

In Year 4 maths, 81 per cent of Canberra students met or exceeded the benchmark compared with 59 per cent in the Northern Territory, a national average of 70 per cent and an international average of 69 per cent.

In year 8 maths, 74 per cent of Canberra students met or exceeded the benchmark compared with 44 per cent in the Northern Territory, a national average of 63 per cent and an international average of 46 per cent.

In Year 4 science, 84 per cent of Canberra students met or exceeded the benchmark compared with 60 per cent in the Northern Territory, a national average of 71 per cent and an international average of 72 per cent.

In Year 8 science, 82 per cent of Canberra students met or exceeded the benchmark compared with 57 per cent in the Northern Territory, a national average of 71 and an international average of 52 per cent.

In September, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Australia must move up the ranks to reach the top five countries for reading, maths and science by 2025.

But Professor Masters said, “It is difficult to see how Australia will be in the top five countries by 2025 if we continue on our current path.”

“We need to look carefully at what improving countries are doing to see what lessons there are for Australia … For a developed country like Australia, these results are concerning.”

Professor Masters said the challenge of improving standards “will not be met by any single strategy, but will require a well-planned and coordinated effort on the part of governments, education systems, schools, parents and the broader community”.

In separate questionnaires, cultural factors in schooling were also examined, including teacher experience and expertise.

At Year 4 level only three-quarters of Australian Year 4 students were being taught math by teachers who were “very confident” of teaching mathematics and by Year 8, around one-third of students were being taught by teachers with no content or training in maths.

In comparison to the international average, few Australian primary teachers had a science background, and compared to mathematics and reading, these was substantially less professional development undertaken in science.

At Year 4 level, about half of the students were being taught science by teachers who felt “well-prepared” to teach all science topics, dipping to less than half for the areas of physical and Earth science. By Year 8, one-quarter of students were taught by science teachers who didn’t feel well prepared to teach all topics in science, particularly Earth science and physics.

Students attending schools in which principals reported no resource shortages scored significantly higher in reading and mathematics, although not in science, than students attending schools in which principals reported being affected by resource shortages.

At least half of Year 4 and Year 8 students reported being "somewhat" affected by resource shortages.


  • No surprise to see Canberrans out performing the rest of Australia. They are the elite Australians. As a retired teacher with almost forty years in the classroom the comparison of countries against each other misses a vital aspect, how education is valued. Singapore and Hong Kong constantly top the polls because parents value education above everything else and support the teachers in their roles. The children are all switched on to learning. In Australia you are lucky to have twenty percent of parents on board and the majority of kids don't care about their education. We need to fundamentally change our culture and start valuing education, otherwise these comparisons are meaningless. I have taught in Hong Kong, an environment where children have a thirst for knowledge and a desire to learn. In Australia you usually have four or five students in each class who have a serious desire to learn. This is not about teachers, it's about changing our culture.

    Tom Brown
    Date and time
    December 12, 2012, 9:05AM
    • Fully agree Tom. Like you I had nearly 40 years as a high school teacher and educational manager. When the parents valued education and respected teachers their children came to school with a positive attitude and were able to achieve to their potential. Over the last 40 years I have seen the K-6 teachers change to a group that generally didn't do well in maths and science at the HSC and went into primary teaching because that was all they could do with their TERs. Some exceptions of course, but when you aren't good at a subject and aren't really interested in it the students soon notice this and get the same attitude to maths and science. There are a few collegiate groups of schools who share specialist teaching across K-12. I used to send down my maths and science teachers to our feeder primary schools and in return they would send us language and music teachers. There are management strategies you can use to address the poor maths and science results in Year 4, but we must start with valuing our teachers and making it a much higher status profession than it is now to attract the brightest and the best to teaching. The culture needs to change!

      Date and time
      December 12, 2012, 10:28AM
    • You raise good points Tom but isn't awakening a desire to learn one of the central goals of good teachers?

      From my experience working with ACT secondary teachers, and from my (albeit limited) understanding of the rules, regulations and policies they are forced to labour under, it seems to me that the upper echelons basically do not trust teachers to do their jobs unless everything is spelled out in a manual and standardised. How can we expect to cultivate originality, creativity and independent thought in our students if we don't permit it to our teachers.

      I think a reexamination of the education culture would have a much more immediate effect. Give people more autonomy, stop getting hung up on the strange concept that "standardised" equals "fair". Encourage teachers to innovate and stop draining their energy and motivation away with empty bureaucratic exercises. Let the teachers focus on teaching, not doing administrative tasks. That's what administrators should be for.

      Date and time
      December 12, 2012, 10:36AM
  • The results are dismal and alarming. It's just not the duty of the government or the schools to improve the results. Parents and families are equally responsible for better standards. Until and unless children are encouraged and motivated at home, they are not able to perform to their best. Most disturbing fact is that most of us are worried about our children that they are put under pressure and strain when they are tested for NAPLAN. We got to stand up and take drastic steps or else we have a very unpromising future for our coming generations.

    Nicholls, Canberra
    Date and time
    December 12, 2012, 9:15AM
    • I agree with Tom. Solution an open door policy to refugees, especially from Asia. Invariably people from Sri Lanka etc are much more focused on Education so the more we bring in the higher our results will go. Problem solved. I'm sure Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison will implement this plan pronto.

      Eric Olthwaite
      Date and time
      December 12, 2012, 9:36AM
      • I've got a plan, let's call it the 'Howard-Gillard Plan'.

        Why don't we throw lots of government school funding at the rich religious schools, more than almost any other OECD nation, so they can hog the top facilities, resources, and teachers?

        That should boost our rankings nicely - as long as Darwin's theory heavily correlates student IQ with parental wealth, aspiration, and religiosity.

        Date and time
        December 12, 2012, 10:02AM
        • Stephen, maybe you should consider how Australia would rank without the private schools to drag up the average? Private schools mostly aren't rich, they are places where parents who are serious about their kids education, and are prepared to pay something for it, aggregate. If across the whole community we were prepared to pay teachers appropriately, and reverse the deprofessionalistion that has occurred over the last 20 or so years, the disparity between private and public might lessen, and our global ranking might improve. Relying on parents to engender enthusiasm for education will just propagate disadvantage from generation to generation.

          Date and time
          December 12, 2012, 11:30AM
          • I shall let my friend, Sam Seaborn, do the talking for me:

            "Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don't need little changes, we need gigantic, monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defence. That's my position. I just haven't figured out how to do it yet."

            That Guy
            Date and time
            December 12, 2012, 1:33PM
            • I'd be interested to know when comparing other Countries how many school days/hours children are being educated. Take out our 4 term school year, school holidays, public holidays then the multiple pupil free days, there lies our problem the kids are not at school enough. Factor in the extra curricular activities, silly mickey mouse subjects and the bad behaviour disruptions in the classrooms, not a lot of learning happens. Has anyone ever bothered to do a comparison with schooling up until the sixties when we did have a top standard of education in this Country, you would find a lot more emphasis on the 3 R's and a lot more time spent in the classroom. I do know what I'm talking about I worked in ACT schools for 5 yrs and took my kids out and put them into private schools (no comparison) discipline doesn't hurt anyone.

              Lynne of Brisbane
              Date and time
              December 12, 2012, 3:46PM
              • I note that one of our commentators is blaming Tony Abbott for the poor performance of our kids. Seems a bit of a long bow. And didn't the ALP just provide us with a revolution in education? How's that going?

                Date and time
                December 12, 2012, 8:52PM
                Comments are now closed

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