New reports released today paint a disturbing picture of Australian students slipping behind the world in maths and science achievement.
A new national report card of year six students has found that their aptitude for science has not improved in a decade.
Only 55 per cent of students nationally were judged as proficient in science, the report by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) found.
It adds to a concerning picture that Australian school students are slipping behind the rest of the world in science and maths results.
But for the first time, girls’ performance in science is outstripping that of boys.
The full reports from last year’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment have also been released today.
They show that Australia is being outperformed by a large number of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and that socioeconomic status is the largest determinant of success.
The performance of disadvantaged students in Australian schools lags a full three years of school behind higher performing peers.
In science, ACARA tests a sample of year six students every three years.
Approximately 12,000 year six students sat a science test in October and November 2015.
‘It is hard to teach science’
Dr Stanley Rabinowitz from ACARA said just over half of them performed at or above the proficient standard.
“Still not as many as we’d like to have meet that standard — so about 55 per cent met the proficient standard and that’s about the same number we had three years ago when we assessed previously,” Dr Rabinowitz said.
A group of experts, including university science educators, curriculum officers and experienced primary teachers, determined the proficiency standard, which is defined as a “challenging standard” set above basic elementary skill.
Dr Rabinowitz, who is ACARA’s general manager for assessment and reporting, said the proficient standard was set consistent with international standards and was attainable.
“We do find that we do perform higher than the international average on these assessments, though some countries are moving at a higher rate than we are.
“There have been significant changes in curriculum in these states and there probably is a greater emphasis on science instruction and that results in increased science achievement.”
For the first time, ACARA is providing sample classroom lessons and ways of tracking and measuring student achievement to help teachers boost the performance of their pupils.
“I think it’s hard to teach science,” Dr Rabinowitz said.
“We think all teachers can do it with a little more support — and so the curriculum, work samples related to the curriculum, as well as a lot of work that’s going on with local authorities should better prepare these generalist teachers.”
Most students want to learn more about science
ACARA defines science literacy as a student’s ability to apply broad conceptual understandings of science in order to make sense of the world, to understand natural phenomena, and to interpret media reports about scientific issues.
It also measures the ability to ask investigable questions, conduct investigations, collect and interpret data and make informed decisions.
For male and female students who sat the test for the first time, there was a significant difference in achievement levels.
Girls performed better than male students nationally. This is a change from 2012, when the mean for females was not significantly higher than males.
Indigenous students had a statistically significant lower mean achievement than non-Indigenous students. Only 31 per cent of year six students in the Northern Territory were judged as proficient in science.
But enthusiasm for science among students was high, with more than 85 per cent of students saying they wanted to learn more science at school and 69 per cent of students indicating that they believe it would be interesting to be a scientist.
Primary school science teacher Jenni Webber, an executive member of the Australian Science Teachers Association, said the results were another wake-up call.
“It’s most definitely concerning,” Ms Webber said.
“We certainly have got room for improvement.”
Ms Webber said that while literacy and numeracy results within schools had received a large amount of attention in recent years, science achievement had not received anywhere near the focus.
“They’re the ones that tend to get the media focus, they’re the ones that we tend to get ranked on on websites, and that’s where a lot of the conversations happen, around your literacy and numeracy levels,” she said.