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arou nd 17 per cent in New Zealand and
the United States, and as little as five per
cent in Hong Kong and eight per cent in
By PISA’s standards, Australia is consid-
ered ‘average’ in terms of equity.
Australia’s overall result, however, is an
average – and it is cause for conce rn that
Australia’s lowest-performing students
are substantially more likely to come from
Indigenous com munities, geographically
remote areas, and low socioeconomic back-
The PISA report shows alarming gaps
between Australia’s highest- and lowest-
achieving students. In some cases the
achievement gaps can represent the equiva-
lent of several years of schooling.
Students in remote locations , for exa m-
ple, scored an average of 56 points lower
than students in metropolitan schools on
reading literacy. This is the equivalent of
almost two years of schooling.
Similarly, there was a gap the equiva-
lent of more than two years of schooling
between the average reading performa nce
of Indigenous students and that of non-
Indigenous students. A similar gap in
achievement was found for mathematics
and science literacy.
In addition , the PISA results show a clear
pattern of subject-specific gender gaps. Boys
significantly outperformed girls in maths;
while in reading, boys trail girls by the equiv-
alent of approxi mately one year of schooling.
Twice as ma ny Australian boys (20 per
cent) as girls (9 per cent) failed to reach
the ‘baseline’ proficiency level: the level
of achievement on the PISA scale at which
students begin to demonstrate the reading
literacy competencies that will enable them
to actively participate in real-life situations.
school sectors and socioeconomic
For the first time PISA examined achieve-
ment by school sector. Scores for students
in i ndependent schools were significantly
higher than scores for students in Catholic
schools, which were in turn significantly
higher than scores for students in govern-
Students in i ndependent schools scored,
on average, 56 score points higher than
students in governme nt schools and 21
score points higher than students in Cath-
olic schools. Students in Catholic schools
scored, on average, 35 points higher than
students in government schools.
There was a higher proportion of stu-
dents in government schools (19 per cent)
compared to Catholic schools (eight per
cent) or i ndependent schools (five per cent)
who did not reach the baseline proficiency
The PISA report recognises, however,
that these results are not an accurate
measure of the quality of each school sec-
tor, but rather a reflection of a range of
interconnected factors influencing student
These factors include, for exa mple, the
effect an individual student’s family back-
ground or socioeconomic status has on
their performance, and the peer effect of
the socioeconomic level of the school itself
on student performa nce.
After adjusting for the effects of students’
socioeconomic backgrou nd, a nalysis of the
results shows that students in Catholic and
independent schools still performed at a sig-
nificantly higher level than students in gov-
ernment schools, although the differences
After adjusting for the effects of schools’
socioeconomic background , however, the
results show no significant differences
between the average reading, m athemati-
cal or scientific literacy scores of students
in each school sector.
This indicates that the socioeconomic
backgrou nd of the school matters more than
the type of school.
Australian students’ skills
The goal of PISA is to measu re competencies that will equip students to participate
productively and adaptively in life beyond school. The emphasis is on students’ abili-
ties to apply their k nowledge and skills to real-life situations and problems.
PISA measu res student performance against defined levels of proficiency: not just
marking students on a curve, but specifying what students are actually able to do.
PISA aims to explore whether students are prepared to meet the challenges of the
future with the skills and capacity to adapt to rapid societal change. To this end,
international science experts defined a set of six levels of proficiency to describe the
skills typically shown by students achieving at each level.
Two per cent of Australian students achieved level 6, the highest reading literacy
proficiency level. A further 11 per cent achieved level 5. Students at these levels have
advanced reading literacy. They demonstrate full and detailed understanding of a
texts whose content or form is unfamiliar.
The bulk of Australian students, 52 per cent performed at levels 3 or 4. Students
at these levels are able to locate information in a text; integrate several parts of a text
in order to identify a main idea, understand a relationship or construe the meaning
of a word or phrase; and compare, cont rast and categorise information a nd ideas
in a text.
Level 2 has been defined internationally as a ‘baseline’ proficiency level: students
who have not reached a proficiency of Level 2 are considered to be at serious risk of
not being able to participate adequately in the 21st century workforce and contribute
as productive citizens.
Fourteen per cent of Australian students did not reach Level 2 or above in read-
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