New Figures Show No Progress in Reducing Low Student Achievement in the Past 30 Years

New figures show that no progress has been made over the past 30 years in reducing the proportion of students finishing school with only the most basic literacy and numeracy levels. They demonstrate the longstanding failure of governments to address the needs of low achieving students. They add to the case to implement the $6.5 billion increase in funding for disadvantaged schools and students recommended by the Gonski review of school funding.

Figures just released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that the proportion of 15 to 19 year olds with only basic literacy and numeracy levels is similar to that of people who finished school in the early 1980s. Twelve per cent of people aged 15 to 19 years have only the most basic level of literacy and 20 per cent have the most basic level of numeracy [Chart 1 below]. These proportions are slightly higher than for the 45 to 49 age group where 10 per cent are at the most basic literacy level and 18 per cent at the most basic numeracy level. The latter age group would have finished school in the early 1980s.

These new figures are significant because they provide a much longer perspective on low achievement in literacy and numeracy in Australia. They add to other more recent data that reveals a failure to address education disadvantage over the past decade. For example, the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) from 2000 to 2009 show a small decline in the average reading score of the bottom 10 per cent of 15 year old students and an increase in the proportion at the lowest PISA proficiency levels from 12.5 to 14.2 per cent. Together, the two data sets show it is time to act on Gonski.

The new ABS figures also appear to confirm the commonplace observation that people who do not gain more than basic literacy skills in school are unlikely to develop these skills through adulthood. The figures show no reduction in the proportion of people at the lowest literacy level in the post-school age groups from 20 to 49 years – each group has 9 to 11 per cent at the lowest literacy level; that is, the post-school experience of these people has not improved their literacy levels.

The proportions of different age groups at the lowest numeracy levels appear to show some post-school development of skills with a five percentage point reduction from the 15 to 19 age group through to the 35 to 39 age group [Chart 1]. However, the statistical uncertainty associated with the survey results is likely to mean that there is little statistically significant difference in the proportions at these different age levels.

In contrast, the figures suggest that achieving at Level 2 in school creates the potential to improve these skills in adulthood through further education, training and workforce experience.

There is a strong contrast between the trends in the proportions at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels and those at Level 2. There is a sharp reduction in the proportion at this level up to the 30 to 34 age group for both literacy and numeracy. The proportion at Level 2 literacy falls from 33 per cent for the 15 to 19 age group to 23 per cent for the 30 to 34 group while the proportion at Level 2 numeracy falls from 37 per cent to 29 per cent [Chart 2].

The people who move out of this level of literacy and numeracy appear to move to the more advanced levels rather than the lower level. There is a big increase in the proportion at these levels for the age groups from 15-19 to 35-39. The proportion at Level 3 and Level 4/5 literacy increased from 52 per cent for the 15 to 19 age group to 62 per cent for the 35 to 39 group [Chart 3]. The proportion at these levels in numeracy increased from 56 to 66 per cent.

Thus, the increasing proportion of people with higher literacy and numeracy skills up to and including the 35 to 39 age group appears to confirm the idea that having more than a basic level of literacy and numeracy creates the opportunity for their further development through more education, training and work experience. This is another reason to act on the Gonksi recommendation for a huge increase in funding for disadvantaged students in order to increase the proportion of these students engaged in life-long learning.

A further contrast shown in the figures is between the pre- and post-40 age groups. The older age groups have increasing proportions at the lower literacy and numeracy levels with age and decreasing proportions at the higher levels. This probably reflects lower participation at school and further education amongst these older age groups. As more people in each succeeding younger age group stayed longer in school and participated in further education, the proportions with Level 1 literacy and numeracy fell dramatically and the proportions at Level 3 and Level 4/5 increased dramatically.

The new ABS figures come from preliminary data for Australian component of the 2011-2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) conducted in 24 countries around the world by the OECD. The full results will be released in October this year.

It should be emphasised that these figures provide one snapshot of literacy and numeracy skills across the age profile of the population. As such, they reflect the combination of a variety of learning experiences through adulthood and not just the impact of schooling. General observations about trends in the comparative skills of different age groups would be better informed by several such snapshots over time. The ABS has published two earlier surveys of adult literacy and numeracy in 2006 and 1996. However, the data from these surveys is not comparable with the new data.

Charts on Literacy and Numeracy Skills by Age

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