Maths, Science, Reading Skills Drop: Despite Top 10 Global Education Ranking

‘It’s important to recognise that our position in the top 10 is largely due to the performance of other countries dropping below ours.’
Maths, Science, Reading Skills Drop: Despite Top 10 Global Education Ranking
A student does school work on a laptop while being home-schooled in Sydney, Australia, on April 9, 2020. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Australian students’ performance in maths, science, and reading has continued to slide downward, with the average Year 9 student scoring at the same level in math as a Year 8 student in 2000, the latest result of an international study has revealed.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report for 2022, Australia has climbed back to the global top 10 for school performance for the first time in a decade.

However, some researchers have argued that this was largely due to the overall decline in performance of other countries.

The PISA, first conducted in 2000, is used to evaluate educational systems by measuring the achievement of 15-year-old pupils in the three major domains of study every three years, with 81 participating countries. The test planned for 2021 was delayed until 2022 due to the pandemic.

Rather than measuring students’ memorisation of knowledge, the test focuses on assessing students’ application of skills and knowledge as well as their real-world problem solving skills.

The 2022 result, released on Dec. 5, showed that the performance Australian students has stabilised since 2015, ranking 10 in maths, nine in reading and nine in science.

Compared to the 2018 results, students’ scientific literacy has seen a small improvement, while their maths and reading proficiency have slightly declined.

Yet, compared with students of the same age who sat the PISA test 20 years ago, Year 9 students in 2022 have fallen behind significantly.

In particular, performance in science had dropped by 20 points, equivalent to an academic year. Students’ scores in maths had fallen by 37 points, equivalent to nearly two academic years, and declined by 30 points in reading, or a year and a half of schooling.

The report noted this downward trend is likely to continue in the future.

The Overall Picture

The top performing country was Singapore, which came first in all three subjects and scored significantly higher than the country in the second place.

Singaporean students achieved a mean score of 575 in maths, 561 in science, and 543 in reading, while Australian students achieved 487, 507, and 498, respectively.

Other countries that ranked higher than Australia in all three domains were Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Canada, Macao, and Taipei. On the other hand, Australia outperformed New Zealand and the U.S. in maths and science, and the UK in reading and science.

Lisa De Bortoli, senior research fellow of the the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), said while it was encouraging that Australia’s results have remained unchanged since 2015, “it’s not the time for complacency.”

In a press released published on Dec. 6, she argued, “it’s important to recognise that our position in the top 10 is largely due to the performance of other countries dropping below ours.”

Six countries that were on par with Australia in 2018 but fell in the achievement in 2022 were France, Iceland, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, and the Slovak Republic.

Meanwhile, Australia is now on par with 11 countries that used to rank higher in 2018, namely Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Sweden, and the U.K..

Trends in performance in mathematics, reading, and science in Australia. (Screenshot/OECD, PISA 2022 Database)
Trends in performance in mathematics, reading, and science in Australia. (Screenshot/OECD, PISA 2022 Database)

Responding to the PISA results, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said it highlighted the importance of fixing the education funding gaps.

“Australia has a good education system, but it can be a lot better and fairer,” he said.

But Liberal Senator Matt O'Sullivan highlighted that spending on education had increased in recent years yet it has not translated into better student outcomes.

“The report showed that throwing money at our education system wasn’t going to make this any better. What is far more important is how the money is invested in our education system,” he told Parliament on Dec. 6.

“Responsible investment into education, initial teacher education reform, and evidence-based methods of pedagogy are the key to Australia’s success. We have the tools that we need in front of us. We just need to be willing to put them to work.”

Mr. O'Sullivan also called on the government to “put aside a blind devotion to ideology and actually focus on the solutions that we have at hand.”

Concerns Over Math Results

Australian Industry Group (Ai Group), the peak employers’ organisation, said maths was Australia’s “greatest weakness” in the PISA results, which would have “consequences for the employability of our students and for the economy as a whole.”
“We cannot sit back and merely accept that our young people are increasingly not developing the mathematical skills that make them fit for the demands of the modern economy,” the group said in a press release.

“As a first step, we need to work on better engaging students with mathematics. This can be helped by demonstrating the positive contribution of mathematics to our day-to-day lives, employment and future earning capacity.”

In Australia, 12 percent of students performed at a high level in maths. This is significantly lower than Singapore (41 percent), Taipei (32 percent), Macao (29 percent), Hong Kong (27 percent), Japan (23 percent), and Korea (23 percent).

About one in every four students in Australia was a low performer in maths, compared to about one in every 12 students in Singapore.

Other Key PISA Details

The PISA result also revealed that nearly half of Australian students didn’t meet the national proficiency standard, which indicates a students’ ability to achieve higher than basic skills expected at that year level.

Only 51 percent of students scored over a baseline proficiency level (Level 2) in maths, while this proportion is 58 percent in science and 57 percent in reading. This is a significant decline of about 12 percentage points compared to 2000 level.

When separated by gender, male students outperformed their female counterparts in maths while female students performed significantly better in reading. Both genders had similar achievements in science.

Australian-born students of migrants outperformed non-immigrant students across three domains, while students born in other countries performed better than Australian-born students in maths and reading.

Indigenous students scored 82 fewer points in maths than their peers, 84 fewer points in reading, and 86 fewer points in science. Less than 30 percent of them attained the proficiency standard and over half were low performers.

Students with a better socio-economic background in Australia performed significantly better than disadvantaged students, a pattern that was also reported in the OECD average.

Nina Nguyen is a reporter based in Sydney. She covers Australian news with a focus on social, cultural, and identity issues. She is fluent in Vietnamese. Contact her at [email protected].