On our woeful maths and science results

timms-2015For the last few years, as we slip down the World maths and science rankings, I have cautioned that we need to be careful about complaining. We need to think about the education system we’re looking to create, what sort of students we want rather than just look at the ranking. While that remains true; things might be going beyond that now.

The latest maths and science results show us not only dropping well down the rankings, but being overtaken by a range of small counties with a plan. This is no longer the case of Australia being roundly put in its place by a host of Asian countries with a scary focus on educational results to the exclusion of all else. That situation was what led to the comments about us being careful what we wish for. Now we’re just doing embarrassingly badly.

Here’s what Sue Thompson from ACER is quoted as saying about the results:

Australia has remained in the middle of the pack in the past 20 years when other countries are improving. Not only that, but a substantial proportion of our students are below the Australian proficient standard, with roughly half of students in remote areas at or below that level. Clearly, we have a problem.

Oh yes, we do clearly have a problem.

It surely comes as no great surprise that we have a problem when so few students study maths and science for the HSC. When we have so few qualified maths and science teachers. And when those two things reinforce each other in a downward spiral.

And while we’re talking downward trends, the scary thing is that our Year 4 maths rankings are worse than our year 8 rankings. So things are not improving. That’s not the way we want to see things going.

Now there is some nuance to these results. Probably the most important thing to note is that they are Australia-wide. The ACT actually did fairly well. NSW and Victoria did better than the other States which dragged the averages down. Rural areas did especially badly.

And here’s an interesting fact, most countries showed little difference between the results from boys and girls while in Australia boys out-performed girls in Year 4 maths by a small, but significant, margin. I don’t know what that means, but it doesn’t strike me as a good thing.

Finally it’s worth noting that there are now a bunch of very poor countries out-performing us. That would suggest that the solution lies less in how much we spend, than in how it is spent.  Focusing on removing inequity between school opportunities would make a substantial overall difference. That is not just supposition; it is clear in the results which show that in Australia students from higher socio-economic background very significantly out-perform students from lower socio-economic background.

The latest figures reinforce that we have a problem. But we’ve known that for some time. Getting high rankings is not an end in itself – especially as we should be thinking clearly about what sort of students we’re trying to push out. Singapore, which tops the rankings, is actually trying to encourage students to think more about education for its own sake and less about pure results. But, as I keep saying, we need to recognise the problem, come up with a plan, and then stick with it.

If we don’t do that we’re inevitably going to continue to produce rankings which are indicative of a poorly educated population. And then being beaten in maths by Kazakhstan will be the least of our problems.

The summary of Australia’s TIMMS 2015 results is here.

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