Some Good News About Academic Standards

Data defies picture of academic decline in Australian schools.
May 28, 2024
If you look there are some positive data around academic standards in Australia.

A common trope is that Australian school students are declining in their ability to attain critical academic skills, fortunately it is not supported by large scale assessment data.

In reality, student achievement is only declining in the PISA assessments and policymakers need to be careful about making recommendations for teaching practices that are based solely on selective reporting of standardised assessment results.

A more complete understanding of progress in student achievement is possible if the results of all major assessments are considered together.

Twenty-five years of publicly available data from the four major standardised assessments undertaken by Australian students documents long-term trends in average achievement reveal that the situation is not as bad as we are led to believe.

The study was led by Dr Sally Larsen at the University of New England, who said, “Ask almost anyone how Australian students are going in tests of basic skills, and the perception is that results are getting progressively worse.”

Our mediocre achievement in PISA, which tests 15-year-old students’ ability to apply knowledge in reading, science and maths - though this assessment is not linked to the Australian curriculum - is often held up as evidence of a general malaise.

“Standardised assessments can also be far removed from what students are learning in the classroom, and are often measuring something very different to in-school assessment. This seems particularly true of the PISA tests.

“Across the three other standardised tests - NAPLAN for literacy and numeracy, which is the only Australian assessment, PIRLS for reading comprehension, and TIMSS for maths and science, what we can see in the data is improvement in results for primary school-aged children, and no real changes in average results for secondary students over 25 years.”

Dr Larsen says it’s critical that assessment trends are correctly and holistically understood, as results of these tests directly influence policy decisions and educational practice in schools.

“If we’re serious about making improvements to the outcomes measured by standardised tests, we have to have an accurate and unbiased understanding of all assessment data, and not jump to conclusions based on only one test.

“It’s clear from the results of this study that primary school students have made a lot of progress in literacy and numeracy, particularly since the start of NAPLAN testing in 2008. This is not a message that we often hear in the public domain but it is what these assessments show."

Dr Larsen’s paper, Are Australian students’ academic skills declining? Interrogating 25 years of national and international standardised assessment data provides easily accessible information on the patterns of average student achievement on these assessments across the span of time that Australian students have participated is freely and publicly available from the Australian Journal of Social Issues: