Australian schools’ maths and science results have flat-lined for the past 20 years relative to comparable countries, according to the latest global science and maths reports.
The findings are contained in today’s release of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
The PISA results showed Australian schools rank 14th out of 72 countries in science, just above the OECD average, while our performance in reading and maths was 16th and 25th respectively.
In a statement today, Federal Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, said bad behaviour in Australia’s classrooms could be a factor in schools’ stagnating performance.
“Ill behaviour doesn't only hurt the outcomes of the student who brings such an approach to school but can “infect entire classrooms of students,” Birmingham said.
“While well-resourced schools with highly capable and motivated teachers are central to success, we equally need policies and parents that empower teachers to expect high standards and adopt a zero tolerance approach to bad behaviour.”
Girls gain edge over boys in science
However, the results of the 2015 NAP Science Literacy tests, also released today, showed that for the first time since sample testing began, a small but significant gender gap has emerged – in favour of girls.
Karen Spiller, the national chair of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia (AHISA), told The Educator that the national focus on engaging girls in STEM subjects “may be bearing fruit”.
“According to ACARA, girls had a higher average score than boys in the 2012 national assessment of Science Literacy, but it was not statistically significant. Three years later, in the 2015 national assessment, that difference had become statistically significant,” she said.
Spiller said there is evidence that gender bias and stereotyping begin early.
“The Office of the Chief Scientist reports that two-thirds of children aged nine to eleven draw a man when asked to draw a scientist,” she said.
“The 2015 NAP Science Literacy results give me hope that such barriers to girls’ participation in science are being eroded.”
Spiller said that “a basic but very important” element to driving this change is raising awareness.
“There have been some powerful, data-rich information campaigns and publications issued by the Office of the Chief Scientist and organisations such as the Australian Academy of Science that have attracted broad media attention,” she said.
“I doubt there would be anyone now – at least in the education sector – who is not aware of the leak of high achieving girls from the so-called STEM pipeline.”
Spiller pointed to government support as “a second critical element” of the encouraging result.
“There has been government funding for programs that target girls’ participation in science activities, and these have helped teachers develop new classroom techniques in some cases or in others provided extension for students showing intense interest in science and other STEM subjects,” she said.
“The fact that all Australian governments have now agreed to a National STEM School Education Strategy also has an indirect influence on how people think about schools and STEM.”