Home' Teacher : Jan-Feb 2011 Contents curriculum & assessm ent 19
In December of last year, the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Develop-
ment (OECD) released the latest results
from its Program for International Student
The assessment, conducted for the OECD
every three years by an international con-
sortium led by the Australian Council for
Educational Research, is the world’s larg-
est international survey in education; the 65
count ries participating in 2009 cover 90 per
cent of the world’s economy.
The most recent round of assessments,
conducted in 2009, evaluated almost half
a million 15-year-old students, including
14,000 students from 353 schools across
Each cycle has a different focus: PISA
2009 concentrated on measu ring students’
reading skills. It also collected some data
about students’ scientific and mathematical
Based on the PISA 2009 international
comparisons, Australian students’ reading,
maths and science skills are all significantly
better than the OECD average.
Despite this apparent success, the news
from PISA is not good.
The PISA report highlights disturbing
gaps in achievement between our highest-
and lowest-achieving students, and shows
that Australian students’ reading literacy
has declined both against the achievements
of other countries and also in real terms
over the last decade.
literacy on the decline
In previous PISA cycles, Australian students
have performed comparatively well in read-
ing literacy on the international stage.
In PISA 2000, only Finland achieved
significantly better results than Australia
in reading literacy.
In 2003, Australia ranked third af ter
Finland and Korea achieved significantly
better results than Australia.
In 2006, Australia was placed sixth out
of 57 countries, outperformed by Korea,
Finland, Hong Kong- China, Canada and
New Zealand. Australia’s performance was
equivalent to that of five other countries,
including Poland and Liechtenstein.
In 2009, Australia was significantly out-
performed by only six of the 65 participat-
ing countries: Shanghai (China), Korea,
Finland, Hong Kong (China), Singapore
and Canada. Australia’s performance was
not significantly different from that of New
Zealand, Japan and the Netherlands. All
other countries performed at a level signifi-
cantly lower than Australia.
The PISA 2009 results also show, however,
that Australia was the only high-performing
country to show a significant decline in read-
ing literacy over the last decade.
While these rankings indicate that Aus-
tralia is performi ng above the OECD aver-
age, they also show that Australia’s perfor-
mance is slipping relative to other countries’.
This is due both to a decline in Australian
students’ literacy levels, and an improve -
ment in the literacy levels of students in
some other cou ntries.
Several of Australia’s Asian neighbours
in particular have shown rapid and signifi-
cant improvement in educational achieve-
ment in the last decade; 2009 was the first
time Shanghai had participated in PISA,
and its students displayed very high levels
There was an overall decline across the
OECD in average scores in reading literacy
between 2000 and 2009. The mean score
on the first ever cycle of PISA, in 2000, was
set to the middle of the scale, so a score of
500 points, but by 2009, the average read-
ing literacy score a mong OECD countries
had dropped to 493 points.
Against this, Australia’s decline in read-
ing literacy is significant: in 2000, Austral-
ia’s average score was 528; by 2009, this had
dropped to 515. This represents a decline of
13 points: almost twice the strength of the
average decline seen i nternationally.
Australia’s scores in reading literacy in
2009 are similar to the scores from 2006.
It appears that the sharpest drop in skills
occurred between 2003 and 2006.
The decline is primarily among higher
achieving students, without any compensa-
tory improvement among lower achieving
This was more evident in some states than
others. In Tasmania and South Australia for
example, there was a 31 score point decline,
which is the equivalent of almost half a
proficiency level, or about one full year of
schooling. In other words, Year 10 students
in 2009 have the reading same skills as Year
9 students had in 2000.
New South Wales and the Australian
Capital Territory reported declines of arou nd
20 score points, representing approximately
one -third of a proficiency level.
More important than which count ries we
beat is whether Australian schools provide
equitable education that allows all students
gain the skills they need to function effec-
tively in society – and the PISA results show
that this is not happeni ng.
The relationship between Australian
students’ socioeconomic background and
academic achievement is similar to the
average for OECD countries. Almost 13
per cent of the variance in student perfor-
ma nce in Australia was due to students’
socioeconomic backgrou nd, compared to
AuSTRALIAn STuDEnTS’ LITERACY hAS FALLEn ShARPLY oVER ThE PAST DECADE,
AnD EQuITY In EDuCATIon hAS BARELY ImPRoVED. rebeCCA leeCh ExPLAInS
WhY ThE RESuLTS oF ThE WoRLD’S LARGEST EDuCATIon ASSESSmEnT PRESEnT
A ChALLEnGE FoR ouR EDuCATIon SYSTEm.
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