Australia’s PISA results show educational disadvantage gap remains

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

The release of the 2015 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results overnight has seen the gap between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds remain, with students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile on average approximately three years behind students from the highest socioeconomic quartile across all three PISA domains.

The difference in outcomes between each socioeconomic quartile is significant, equivalent to approximately one year of schooling.


The change in Australia’s overall scores is due to a decrease in the proportion of high achievers and an increase in the proportion of low achievers.

Disturbingly, the largest disparities are on the basis of student background.

As ACER Director Sue Thompson says, “The difference between advantaged and disadvantaged students is around three years of schooling. That’s not changed in 16 years of testing (for reading). That’s the critical thing. We’re still not attending to those gaps.”

Students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile are two to three times more likely to be below Level 3 in PISA, which is Australia’s agreed national proficient standard representing a “challenging but reasonable” expectation of student achievement at age 15.

Overall, approximately four out of 10 Australian students are below the national proficient standard.


The impact of student background appears to be stronger in Australia than elsewhere in the OECD.

Mathematical literacy results for Australian students in the highest socioeconomic quartile are significantly higher than the OECD average (approximately one-and-a-half years above), while results for Australian students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile are significantly lower (approximately one year below). Scientific and reading literacy results show similar trends.

The difference between Australian students in metropolitan schools and those in regional schools is approximately one year of schooling. Indigenous students are more than two years behind their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Overall, Australian students’ performance in scientific, reading and mathematical literacy continues to decline since the testing began in 2000 – and our performance relative to other countries has dropped again.

Australia performed equal 10th in science (down from eighth in 2012), equal 12th in reading (down from 10th in 2012) and equal 20th in mathematics (down from 17th in 2012).

The PISA results follow the release of the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) last week, which showed that Years 4 and 8 students’ achievement in the mathematics and scientific curriculum has flat-lined, while many other countries improved.

PISA shows that students from the highest performing country, Singapore, are on average one-and-a-half years ahead of Australian students in scientific literacy, one year ahead in reading literacy and two-and-a-third years ahead in mathematical literacy.

“The challenge for policymakers, schools and teachers is how to respond to increasing pressure to lift test results on PISA, TIMSS and NAPLAN, while also addressing systemic inequality in order to ensure that every Australian student is given access to a meaningful education”, argue academics Stewart Riddle and Bob Lingard in The Conversation.

Chief Executive of the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) Geoff Masters asks, “What will it take to lift achievement levels in Australian schools?

“One thing we know with certainty is that levels of student achievement are influenced by the quality of teaching. Any lift in performance will depend on changes in classroom practice in schools throughout the country.

“This in turn will depend on teachers who are knowledgeable about the subjects they teach, who have the diagnostic skills to analyse learning difficulties and who are able to implement highly effective teaching interventions.”

PISA provides a useful comparison to look overseas at the characteristics of high-performing systems and how they can be adapted to the Australian context.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Teach For All Wendy Kopp finds, “For global issues like public health or the environment, there are robust channels for sharing knowledge and best practices among communities around the world.

“But this simply isn’t the case for education. Too often, innovative ideas and new approaches never see the light of day beyond a specific community or country.

“PISA enables analysis of what high-performing and rapidly improving countries have in common – and we need better ways to ensure those lessons, and many others, can travel to communities all around the world that can put them to use to improve outcomes for kids.”

According to Geoff Masters, “…part of the long-term solution is to increase the capacity of the Australian teaching workforce. High-performing countries have been remarkably successful in raising the status of teaching and attracting highly able people into teaching.

“At present, Australia is heading in the opposite direction; fewer of our most able school leavers are choosing teaching as a career and this is further lowering the status of teaching. We must break this cycle.

“Higher order skills and deep understandings of subject matter depend on highly knowledgeable teachers. We must learn from international experience and make it a national priority to increase the number of highly able young people choosing to become teachers.”

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