President’s comment 4 December 2013

What PISA really tells us

by Kevin Bates

Every three years, the release of international education data in the form of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) prompts a flurry of negative commentary of the state of Australian schools.

The focus is usually on creating a league table of how many countries “out perform” Australia in mathematical, scientific and reading literacy.

Rarely is it reported how Australian students continue to perform well above the OECD average across all three measures, and above comparable nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom (to which, sadly, Australian politicians at all levels continue to look when formulating their ever-changing education policies).

Most revealing in the 2012 PISA report on Australia, released in December 2013, is the widening gap between the lowest and highest student scores. Against all three measures, Australia records a larger gap than the OECD average. Further, Indigenous students, students from the lowest socioeconomic quartile and those in remote schools are over-represented in the “low performing” range of scores.

These characteristics of educational disadvantage are exactly those that were identified as needing extra resources in the Gonski school funding review.

This most recent PISA data confirms what Australian teachers, principals and their education unions already knew – only a long-term investment in education, including significantly boosted resourcing for schools serving the most disadvantaged children, will help all Australian children achieve their full potential.

The PISA report doesn’t only cover test score data. One very worrying statistic is that “on average, over 20% of Australian students felt they did not belong, were not happy or were not satisfied at school”.

That means that, for every five 15-year-old students in our schools, one does not want to be there.

It is a disturbing statistic that brings into sharp focus the complexities and challenges facing professional educators across the country.

Governments must take note. Punitive disciplinary measures will not help these children. Simply forcing them to attend school will not help them, if they are already disengaging from education.

These students need support. That includes support from specialist teachers and guidance officers, as well as more individual attention in class. It includes wide curriculum choices with the right teaching resources, including for VET in schools, to recapture their interest. It includes targeted programs to help them overcome any short or long-term learning difficulties.

These students are at one of the most vulnerable stages of life. On the verge of adulthood, the choices they make now will have a fundamental influence on the rest of their lives.

We should all be helping them make the choices that will benefit them, and that includes helping them make the most of their last years of school education.

Kevin Bates