Top-five schooling systems goal in doubt after international tests

Results of international reading, mathematics and science tests have shown that Australia's education standards are falling behind international benchmarks, which has put the federal government's goal to see Australia among the top-five educational systems by 2025 in doubt.

These results have come from two separate studies conducted in 2011: the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Around 50 countries participated in each study, with Australian schools participating in both studies at Year 4 level, and TIMSS only at Year 8 level.

The main concern relates to the results of Year 4 students, which saw Australian students out-performed by 26 other countries in reading, by 21 countries in science and 17 countries in mathematics.

  • Reading and literacy: Australia came in at 27th place for reading and literacy, with a mean score of 527 falling behind the international benchmark of 550. The top-five countries include Hong Kong, the Russian Federation, Finland, Singapore and Northern Ireland.
  • Science: Australia came in at equal 22nd place, alongside Serbia, Ireland and Croatia. The top-five countries were Korea, Singapore, Finland, Japan and the Russian Federation. Australia's mean score of 516 fell short of the international benchmark of 550.
  • Maths: Mathematics results saw Australian come in at 17th place, behind the top five: Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan. As with the science testing, Australia scored 516 and again fell short of the international benchmark.

Secondary students fared much better, with Australia placing 11th in Year 8 mathematics and 12th in Year 8 science.

What does this mean for the federal government's 2025 goal?

The primary-level results have put the federal government's National Plan for School Improvement in doubt, which promised to guarantee every Australian child access to a world-class education, regardless of their location, family background or the school attended. This plan will be phased in over a six-year period beginning in 2014, and is expected to include a new school funding model, additional training for teachers and help for schools requiring extra support, as well as greater support for students who need it most. Under the plan, it was proposed that this would see Australia among the top-five countries in the world for reading, maths and science by 2025.

The findings show that Australia has a long way to go if it is to reach the top five nations in any of the three testing areas. Federal School Education Minister Peter Garrett noted that the results were a wake-up call, and that they show the necessity of the National School Improvement Plan and the cooperation of the state and territory governments to invest into education, including funding proposals that have come about following the release of the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling.

It has been suggested that many of the high-achieving countries have programs in place to attract talented teachers and emphasised pre-service training, with the hope of ensuring that teachers were experts in their field.

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