PRIME Minister Julia Gillard's goal of Australia having one of the top five schooling systems in the world by 2025 has been thrown into doubt after the nation received disastrous results in the latest international reading, maths and science tests.
Australian children were beaten by students from 26 countries in year four reading in the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.
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Quarter of year-four students behind in reading
With 26 countries beating our year-four students in reading, Sue Thomson from the Education Research Council says low literacy standards could have "all sorts of implications".
This was the first time Australia had participated in an international assessment of reading at primary school level.
Australia's performance was also troubling in year 4 science and maths.
Children from 21 countries outperformed Australian students in year 4 science in the 2011 Trends in International Maths and Science Study. Seventeen countries significantly outranked Australia in year 4 maths.
''To say the results are disappointing is an understatement to say the least,'' said Australian Council for Educational Research chief executive Geoff Masters. ''It is difficult to see how Australia will be in the top five countries by 2025 if we continue on our current path.''
Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett said the results were a wake-up call. He maintained that a fairer funding system, coupled with the federal government's school improvement agenda, would boost standards and take Australian schools into the top five in the world by 2025.
''State and territories governments need to sign up to our plan, including paying their fair share of any extra investment - and they certainly shouldn't be slashing funding to schools like we are seeing in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.''
The results, released on Tuesday night, reveal Asian countries blitzed the world in science and maths, with Singapore and South Korea in the top three in every category.
Hong Kong, the Russian Federation and Finland topped year 4 reading, with Australia ranked 27th out of the 45 participating countries.
Professor Masters told Fairfax Media he was surprised Australia had performed so poorly in reading. It trailed other major English-speaking nations, including the United States, which normally does not perform as well as Australia in international tests.
''I don't know whether it has always been this way or whether things have got worse,'' he said.
''This is the first time in our history we've had information about primary reading levels in the form we can benchmark against other countries.''
The 2011 Trends in International Maths and Science Study, which is held every four years, ranked performance in year 4 maths and science in 52 countries and year 8 maths and science in 45 countries.
Australian students had improved by the time they got to
year 8, with just 10 countries performing better in maths and 11 in science.
Professor Masters said the results showed Australia's performance has largely stagnated over the past 16 years. Australia needed to look carefully at countries that had dramatically improved, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei, to see what lessons there were for Australia, he said.
These countries tended to be focusing on raising the status of teaching to attract talented people and keep outstanding teachers in the classroom. They also emphasised pre-service training and ensuring teachers were experts in their subjects.
Questionnaires revealed only about half of the year 4 Australian students who sat the maths and science tests in late 2010 were taught by teachers who felt well prepared to teach science.
More than 20 per cent of year 8 students were taught maths and science by teachers who felt only ''somewhat'' confident teaching the subject.
Professor Masters said the findings highlighted the need to address the issue of secondary teachers teaching subjects in which they were not qualified and the lack of preparation to teach science in primary school.
Victoria performed relatively well compared to other states, particularly at the primary level. It scored higher than all other jurisdictions except the ACT in year 4 reading, maths and science.
Education Minister Martin Dixon said Victoria would set new minimum standards for NAPLAN tests that were higher than the national standards.
''In Victoria we will no longer measure ourselves against Sydney, but Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong; and not against Queensland, but Finland, the United Kingdom and the United States.''