Australian high school students' achievement in maths and reading has slumped over the past decade, while huge gaps persist based on wealth, location, gender and whether students are indigenous.
The snapshot of international education achievement by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released on Tuesday night has revealed worrying trends for Australia, showing that while students in this country perform better than the OECD average, results are slipping and are bedevilled by equity issues.
In a disturbing new trend, the achievement of Australian girls in mathematics fell faster than it did for boys since 2009
The findings are likely to further fuel debates around school funding, reinvigorated this week by the Abbott government's shifting positions on the Gonski ''needs-based'' funding model, and its decision to hand $1.2 billion to non-signatory jurisdictions such as the Northern Territory which will not be required to distribute the funding to schools with the most disadvantaged students.
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The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of mathematics, reading and science show Australia is being outperformed by more and
more countries, particularly from East Asia, with Australian students performing at a level equivalent to three years behind students from Shanghai in mathematics and 1½ years behind in reading.
"Australia's ranking fell in all subjects, from 15th to 19th in mathematics, 10th and 16th in science and 9th to 14th in reading since 2009". Photo: John Donegan
Australia's rankings fell in all subjects, from 15th to 19th in mathematics, 10th to 16th in science and 9th to 14th in reading since 2009.
''We're being outperformed by a much larger number of countries now,'' said Sue Thomson, director of educational monitoring and research at the Australian Council for Educational Research.
In a disturbing new trend, the achievement of Australian girls in mathematics fell faster than it did for boys since 2009.
''We were quite proud that we had no gender gap in mathematics, but that's back, and girls' attitudes are really quite a concern in terms of their level of 'maths anxiety' and belief about whether they can succeed in maths,'' Dr Thomson said.
The PISA results confirm serious inequality within the education system in Australia, a key fact highlighted by David Gonski's review of school funding.
The latest results show Australian students in the lowest socio-economic quartile are performing on average at a rate equivalent to 2½ years behind the highest socio-economic quartile, while the same gap also occurred between the results of indigenous and non-indigenous students.
Gonski review panellist and former director-general of NSW education Ken Boston said Australia should compare itself to Canada in OECD comparisons - which performed significantly higher than Australia in maths and reading.
''Forget Shanghai and Finland,'' he said. ''Canada is the country Australia needs to compare itself with because it is culturally similar. The key thing is that it has a higher performance than us overall and a lower correlation between disadvantage and performance.''
Dr Boston said the private school sector is much smaller in Canada and school funding is distributed according to school need.
The report noted that systems with high performance in mathematics ''tend to allocate resources more equitably between advantaged and disadvantaged schools''.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne said the report showed Labor's ''Education Revolution'' had been a failure. ''Today's report card shows that for all the billions spent on laptops and school halls there is still no evidence of a lift in outcomes for students,'' he said.
But Correna Haythorpe, from the Australian Education Union, blamed the Howard-era ''socio-economic status'' funding model. ''Under the SES model, championed by Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne, and in operation for all but one year of Australia's decline in PISA scores, the most funding has gone to the wealthiest private schools,'' she said.