Disadvantaged Students Get Less Opportunities in Science

A new international study shows that disadvantaged students in Australia are, on average, given less opportunity to learn science at school than students from more affluent families. Disadvantaged 15 year-old students spend over 30 minutes less a week studying science than the average for all other students. This contributes to a large achievement gap in science results between rich and poor students.

Disadvantaged students spend about 20% less time learning science at school than their more advantaged peers. The average time spent on science by non-disadvantaged students in Australia is just over three hours twenty minutes per week compared to two hours and 50 minutes per week for disadvantaged students.

The study also shows that many disadvantaged students achieve top level results against the odds of their background because they spend more time in class on science. These successful disadvantaged students spend over 75 minutes more time in class on science per week than their less successful peers.

These successful disadvantaged students are termed “resilient” students by the study. They are defined as those in the bottom third of socio-economic background who are in the top third of test results. Resilient students spend an average of just over three hours and 35 minutes in science lessons per week compared to two hours and 20 minutes by disadvantaged low achievers.

In Australia, 31% of disadvantaged students are categorised as “resilient”, that is, they achieve high level results. This compares with over 70% in Shanghai and Hong Kong, 56% in Korea, 48% in Singapore and 46% in Finland. Several other countries including Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Taiwan, Turkey and Liechtenstein have a much higher proportion of resilient students than Australia.

These countries are doing a far better job than Australia in providing opportunities for disadvantaged students to attain at high levels of achievement. Australia’s percentage of resilient students is similar to the average for all OECD countries.

These results are reported in the June issue of PISA in Focus, published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and a detailed report published earlier in the year called Against the Odds. The results were obtained from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) in 2006 and 2009.

OECD countries, disadvantaged students spend 20% less time learning science at school than their more advantaged peers. While relatively advantaged students spend more than 3 hours on regular science lessons at school per week, disadvantaged students spend about 2 hours and a half. Disadvantaged students in France spend nearly 50% less time on science than other students while disadvantaged students in Germany and the US spend about 30% less time on science.

The study’s findings suggest that time spent on science in class has a strong influence on the performance of disadvantaged students. In practically all OECD countries, and other countries participating in PISA, the average resilient student spends more time studying science at school than the average disadvantaged low-achiever. On average, resilient students spent over an hour a week more on science.

Differences are especially pronounced in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, where resilient students spend at least one hour and 45 minutes more than disadvantaged low achievers learning science at school per week. Disadvantaged students in several countries, such as Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the Slovak Republic and Switzerland, spent only an hour and a half or less a week in regular lessons at schools learning science. In the Netherlands, disadvantaged low achievers spend less than one hour and 15 minutes a week learning science at school, the lowest average across OECD countries.

The data also show that there is little difference among different groups of disadvantaged students in either the quality of school resources they experience or in the degree to which these resources are used to promote science learning activities at school. Greater resilience does not appear to be related to the quality of science resources in schools or they way they are used.

The results suggest that schools may have an important role to play in promoting resilience by providing opportunities for disadvantaged students to spend more time learning science at school.

It says they can start by providing more opportunities for disadvantaged students to learn in class by developing activities, classroom practices and teaching methods that encourage learning and foster motivation and self-confidence among those students. High-quality mentoring programmes, for example, have been shown to be particularly beneficial. Focusing these activities on disadvantaged students is crucial, as they are the students who are least likely to receive this support elsewhere.

The study discounts making science compulsory as a way of improving the performance of low achievers. It says that making science compulsory may be an option in some circumstances but the association between performance and an increase in the number of compulsory science courses is weak.

Trevor Cobbold

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