Australian Students lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to maths and science

A report conducted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) indicates that Australian students are being outperformed by a majority of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, when it comes to mathematics and science. Over the last decade, these figures have remained largely unchanged, indicating that Australia has a long way to go before they are considered at the forefront of education on a global scale.

These findings come from the most recent (March 2017) release of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS).

TIMSS is a large-scale international study intended to inform educational policy and practice at a global scale, by providing an insight into teaching and learning skills of students in Years 4 and 8. According to the latest TIMSS scores, of the 500,000 students tested, a mere 55% demonstrated science literacy, meaning that almost 50% of young Australians are not reaching a minimum level of basic skills in science. These studies, which provide 20-year trend information for countries that were involved in the initial TIMSS assessments back in 1995, show that not much has changed in terms of Australian student standards in maths and science.

Results from the PISA study indicate that Australian schools were ranked 14th in Science, 16th in reading and 25th in mathematics out of a total of 72 countries which participated in the study. Outcomes of the PISA study also show that, while many young Australians are keen to know more about Science (85% reported), many find it hard to relate theoretical Science into their everyday lives and are therefore less inclined to participate in science activities or extra-curricular learning to help improve poor marks.

What these studies do indicate is that student performance in Australia is largely determined by socioeconomic status and that there is a huge disparity between student performance at wealthier schools compared to that at poorer schools. The factors contributing to this may be attributed to lack of adequate infrastructure and technical support in poorer schools, less funding allocated to science, technology and maths in lower socio-economic schools, and a greater emphasis on academic performance in prestigious schools in order to boost ranking.

Overall, the reasons are likely to be complex and difficult to isolate, highlighting the need for reform in our education system, and the need to target low achievement from a policy perspective.  While there are a number of policies that target children with special needs, there doesn’t appear so much available for those who are demonstrating low achievement in mathematics, science and technology.

Thinking scientifically doesn’t come naturally to most of us, but it is important that we find ways to engage students and encourage them to apply scientific concepts into their everyday life. The key to improving performance outcomes for Science students is to make scientific concepts matter to them and to encourage them to think outside of the box. In the long term, if we want our students to be given the best opportunities for learning and to perform to the best of their ability, then we need to ensure that teachers are given the resources and opportunities to participate in regular professional development so that they can update their existing maths and science knowledge and formulate some of their own ideas.

A minimum level of knowledge in maths and science is necessary for meaningful participation in modern society. Unfortunately, living a productive and fulfilling life without these basic skills means that those that are already disadvantaged become even more disadvantaged and the cycle perpetuates.