PISA: Australian students performing above standards
Australia’s performance in the OECD’s Program for International Assessment (PISA) has seen average student scores decrease since the test was first administered in 2000.
While some may conclude that Australia’s education system is in decline, this is not warranted and is, in fact, simplistic; particularly as Australian students continue to perform above the OECD average in all areas tested. IEUA-QNT Research Officer Adele Schmidt reports.
What is PISA?
PISA is an international test issued to 15 year old students every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and administered in Australia by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).
Three subject areas are tested: reading, mathematics and science, with the key focus of testing varying each round. In 2015, the focus area was science.
As the performance of Australian students is closely linked to their socioeconomic background, indigenous status, school location, language background and the sector of school attended, such results suggest that Australia’s declining performance is likely to be a reflection of widening inequities in our education system.
However, the PISA results do not demonstrate that Australia has undergone a decline in teaching and learning standards as there are, in fact, areas where Australia has performed particularly well.
Improved science learning
PISA results show that Australian students do perform above the OECD average in science, have stronger than average epistemic beliefs and an above average percentage of students expect to work in a science–related occupation.
In many low-performing countries, relatively small time allocations for science teaching have a direct negative impact on student results. However, thisis not an issue in Australia, where the majority of students in government and non-government schools are exposed to significant science teaching.
The OECD’s analysis of teaching methods also suggests that time spent teaching science is effective in supporting student learning. Across all countries tested, science and mathematics teachers were more likely to rely on methods of instruction where teachers frequently explain and demonstrate scientific ideas and discuss students’ questions, and these practices were closely coupled with student performance.
A strong, positive orientation to science is an important product of teaching that takes students beyond simple rote learning and memorisation of facts. In this sense, it is possible that Australian students may well be significantly advantaged in developing the rich cognitive schemata required to solve more challenging open-ended problems than those examined in written tests such as PISA.
Determining whether this is the case will require long-term analysis of broader social and economic data beyond the narrow focus of PISA and other international tests.
Limitations of student testing
It will also require media and policy makers to accept limitations of international tests, which include focus on an essentially arbitrary subset of subject areas and the essentially unproven assumption that there is a strong causal relationship between teacher performance and student performance.
It is timely to remember there is a significant body of evidence that data from international tests is often:
- Unreliable in the sense that a teacher classified as high performing in one year has a 25-50 per cent chance of being classified as low performing in a second subsequent test;
- Invalid in that there is limited evidence that teachers who produce good test results are effective using another criterion;
- Biased in that teachers of students who are not randomly assigned to classrooms have more difficulties in demonstrating learning gains;
- Unfair in the sense that only teachers of some subjects are being held accountable;
- Fraught with measurement errors due to missing data, variables that cannot be controlled and measurement errors;
- Inappropriate for formative use in that teachers and administrators often do not understand the models being used to evaluate them;
- Used inappropriately to make consequential decisions such as teacher termination or application of merit pay schemes; and
- Has unintended consequences that go unrecognised. For example, teachers leaving teaching out of discontent, teachers choosing not to teach students who are most likely to hinder growth and principals stacking classes to make sure certain teachers can demonstrate positive outcomes.
These PISA results identify a national challenge that requires a national response by governments to improve the long-term quality of teaching and learning.
This article was extracted from the February 2017 edition of Independent Voice.