Why are Australia’s NAPLAN and PISA results dropping?

pisachartThe question on everybody’s lips at the moment seems to be why are our results going down, both by comparison to other countries and in real terms, in international comparisons (PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment), and also in national high-stakes tests (NAPLAN – National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy)?


It is tempting to look for a silver bullet – the one factor that explains this trend – but as with most things, the truth is more complex and nuanced.

I’ve been following this story for the past few years and have been attending the History Teachers Association of Victoria conference this week, where a panel of educational leaders discussed the issues.

Their discussions focused on the following reasons:

  1. in teaching, we’re focusing on the wrong things, the things that John Hattie has warned us about, such as school choice, class size, infrastructure and the like
  2. PISA and NAPLAN actually only test a very limited range of skills, and these aren’t necessarily the things that Australian schools are focusing on
  3. the systems that do well in PISA, for example, use strategies that we wouldn’t condone in Australia, such as stifling, boring lessons, evening cram schools, and rote learning of test-related materials and skills (in particular Singapore, Japan and Shanghai)

While I agree that these factors play a part, they focus on the primary and secondary systems alone, and don’t mention the fact that only 15% of Australian three year olds attend kinder, as opposed to about 80% for the OECD overall. Missing out on a year of education during the crucial early years must play a part in developments later in a students educational career.

Without being too rigorous, my own beliefs on the issue suggest to me that there are a great deal of extra factors that must play some part in our educational decline as measured by these tests, some of which are:

  • Australia, unlike some Northern European and Asian cultures, does not have a particularly intellectual culture. It is often considered a mark of honour to not know anything about maths or science.
  • this last point leads to the situation where parental influence isn’t always as positive towards education as it could be, or indeed as it is in other cultures. I’ve seen one interpretation of NAPLAN results that shows that students from Indian and Chinese backgrounds outperform their Anglo counterparts.
  • following on from the point made above, not only do Australian schools not focus on PISA and NAPLAN style skills, the number of added programs constantly being pushed on schools doesn’t help either – coding, financial literacy, anti-bullying programs, anti-sexism programs etc. Which is not to say that these programs don’t have value – merely to point out that our system is trying to do a lot more than just produce students who can ace literacy and numeracy tests.
  • we don’t practice a culture of spreading best practice within or between schools. Research suggests the best teacher in a school is four times more effective than the worst teacher, yet few schools rigorously engage in within-school training, compulsory observation and professional development targeted at teachers’ areas for improvement (and not their own perceptions of their areas for improvement)
  • the large number of different subjects that students must do, where teachers of those subjects don’t necessarily explicitly teach the numeracy and literacy aspects of them. This is true even of the subject I teach most – history – a lot of history education teaches students highly specific history skills such as analysing primary sources, building timelines and engaging in historical empathy, rather than broader literacy skills, such as John Munro’s ‘high reliability literacy teaching procedures’.
  • the public debate about funding and school choice is a major distraction. Parent’s are tricked into thinking they have school choice because they can choose the school their children go to – if they are wealthy enough. They perhaps don’t realise the difference in teacher quality between systems is minimal, whereas the difference within schools is huge. Real parent choice would mean parent’s choosing the teachers within the school their children had.

Given that all these issues and more have an impact, and given that complex problems that must take in a large number of factors over a long period of time are notoriously difficult to solve using political means, it seems unlikely we will see any improvement any time soon.

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