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Australian Kids Are Just Very Average At Science And Maths, New Report Says

We're about as middling as middling can be.

30/11/2016 8:53 AM AEDT | Updated 30/11/2016 10:21 AM AEDT
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Australian kids are lagging behind on maths and science

If Australian kids were to get a report card for science and maths, it would probably bear a grade like a C-plus or a B-minus -- not bad, not great, just... well... rather average.

A new international grading from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study shows Aussie maths and science students in years four and eight are right in the middle of basically every index:

  • 28th out of 49 countries in year four maths
  • 17th out of 39 countries in year eight maths
  • 25th out of 47 countries in year four science
  • 17th out of 39 countries in year eight science

The figures show Australian achievement levels have basically stayed the same for a number of years, but our falling figures are due to other countries gunning past us. Australia fell from 12th to 17th in both year eight maths and science since the last report. On ABC TV this morning, education minister Simon Birmingham was blunt.

"It's not good enough," he admitted.

"This must be used as a wake-up call. It comes on top of a raft of evidence from NAPLAN tests, from other international assessments that show we are not doing as well as we should in terms of performance in maths and science, that's also the case in many ways in literacy and reading skills."

Birmingham said the education basics "are going backwards" and Australian students were "slipping in a number of areas."

Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Japan were consistently at the top of every ranking, while countries like Northern Ireland, Russia, Slovenia and Norway also recorded good scores. Australia is also being beaten by Kazakhstan on every measure, as well as Lithuania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Cyprus on various indexes.

On international benchmarks, we didn't go so well either. There were 30 per cent of Australian year four maths students who did not achieve the 'intermediate' benchmark, which represents "challenging but reasonable" standards; 36 percent of year eight maths students, 25 percent of year four science students and 31 percent of year eight students also missed the 'intermediate' benchmark.

On a state and territory basis, the nation's capital was the best performing jurisdiction in both science and maths. The Australian Capital Territory led both scores, with Victoria second on both, while the Northern Territory came last on both. Location also played a role in other ways, with around half of students in remote areas not meeting the international benchmarks; 59 percent in year eight maths, 56 percent in year four maths, 45 percent in year four science and 53 percent in year eight science. That compares to just 22 percent of year four science students in metropolitan areas who missed the intermediate mark.

Birmingham defended how much money was being spent on schools, saying funding alone would not fix the problem. He claimed the government would pour in an extra $4 billion to the education system from 2016 to 2020, but said using that money efficiently was the most important task.

"We have to actually now talk about how we get the best bang for our buck, because despite all the extra dollars that have gone in over the years, these results show we are not getting the right outcomes," he said.

He also hinted at the controversial idea of performance-based standards for teachers.

"We need to actually make sure that the reward for teachers recognises competency, not just time served, and that's again something we've put on the table to discuss with the states and territories," Birmingham said.

"To back those teachers who are peer-reviewed, increase their recognition in terms of being lead teachers or highly accomplished teachers, recognised by their peers, are the ones who get the reward and take on the leadership roles in the classroom."

He cited pushes for teacher training reforms, better support for high-performing teachers, early intervention measures for struggling students, and "higher ambition" for older students, as the ways to lift Australia's report card.

The full report is available at ACER's website.

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