A new OECD report shows that a significant proportion of Australian students are not achieving expected standards in mathematics, reading and science. It shows that low performance is strongly associated with the socio-economic status (SES) of students’ families and schools. It also shows that the incidence of teacher shortage and lower quality educational resources is higher in schools with a high proportion of low achieving students. It says that additional resources and a multi-pronged approach are needed to address low performance.

In 2012, 20% of students in Australia did not achieve the baseline mathematics proficiency standard in 2012, 14% did not achieve the reading and science standards and 9% did not achieve the proficiency standard in all three subjects.

The proportion of low performing students has increased significantly over a decade. The proportion below the mathematics standard increased by 52% (7 percentage points) between 2006 and 2012; the proportion below the reading standard increased by 19% (2 percentage points) between 2003 and 2012 and for science by 7% (1 percentage point) between 2006 and 2012.

Low achievement is strongly associated with low socio-economic status (SES). The large proportion of low performing students in Australia are from the lowest SES quartile. Low SES students accounted for 44% of all low performing students and students from the second lowest quartile accounted for another 29% of low performers.

One-third of students from the lowest SES quartile did not achieve the mathematics proficiency standard and one quarter did not achieve the reading and science standards. In contrast, only 8% of high SES students did not achieve the mathematics standard and 5% did not achieve the reading and science standards.

The report shows that a socio-economically disadvantaged student in Australia is six times more likely to be a low performer than an advantaged student. After taking account of several other factors influencing school performance such as gender, immigrant and language background, family structure, urban or rural location, pre-primary education and grade repetition, a socio-economically disadvantaged student is still five times more likely to be a low performer than an advantaged student.

Other factors, apart from socio-economic background, also contribute to low performance. These include gender, family structure, language spoken at home and location. For example, in Australia, more boys tend to be low performers in reading than girls and more girls tend to be low performers in mathematics than boys. A higher proportion of students from single-parent families than two-parent families are low performers and a higher proportion of students in rural areas are low performers than students who live in urban areas.

The lack of pre-primary education is also a strong predictor of low performance at age 15. In Australia, 37% of students with no pre-primary education are low performers in mathematics compared to 16% of students with more than a year of pre-primary education and 20% of students who have had a year or less.

While each of these risk factors for low performance has a specific, separate association with the likelihood of low performance among individual students, they also interact with each other and have a cumulative effect. The report found that combinations of these risk factors result in even greater probabilities of low performance. In Australia, a student with a high-risk profile who comes from a disadvantaged family has a 71% probability of low achievement in mathematics, compared with a 33% probability for an advantaged student [Chart 1 below].

The difference in the probability of low performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students more than doubles from 16 percentage points in the low-risk scenario to 38 points under high-risk conditions. This widening of the gap across the risk spectrum indicates that the concentration of different kinds of risk factors is more detrimental to disadvantaged students.

Disadvantaged students tend not only to be encumbered with more risk factors than advantaged students, but those risk factors have a stronger impact on these students’ performance. In particular, the penalty of not attending pre-primary education, repeating a grade and taking a vocational education track is much greater for disadvantaged students than for advantaged students.

The socio-economic gap in the probability of low performance is much larger in Australia than the average for OECD countries. The average gap for the OECD increases by only 7 percentage points compared with 22 in Australia. This indicates that the risk factors have a much stronger effect on the performance of disadvantaged students in Australia than the average for the OECD.

The PISA 2012 report showed that student performance at school is influenced not only by students’ family backgrounds but also by the nature of the school they attend. In Australia, as in every country and economy that participated in PISA 2012, low-performing students attended schools with a more disadvantaged student body than students who scored above the baseline level of proficiency in mathematics. Low-performing students attended schools with an average socio-economic profile of -0.1 on the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS), while students who scored at proficiency standard or above attended schools with an average socio-economic profile of 0.28 on the index. The correlation between disadvantaged schools and larger shares of low performers in these schools is strong and statistically significant.

The report shows that a student who attends a disadvantaged school in Australia is eight times more likely to be a low performer in mathematics than a student who attends a school with an advantaged student population (that is, a school in the top SES quartile). After the student’s family socio-economic status is taken into account, the student in the disadvantaged school is four times more likely to be a low performer. This indicates that the social composition of schools has just as strong an impact on the likelihood of being a low achiever as a student’s own family background.

The report also shows that schools with low performing students in mathematics in Australia are more likely to attend schools that suffer from a lack of qualified teachers than schools attended by better performing students. The incidence of teacher shortage in mathematics in Australian schools attended by low performers is the 9th highest out of 34 OECD countries [Chart 2 below]. Indeed, it is 7 times higher than the average for the OECD. The difference in the incidence of teacher shortage between schools attended by low-performing students and those attended by better performing students is the 6th highest in the OECD and over double the average for the OECD.

Schools in Australia with a large proportion of low performers have significantly higher quality educational resources (textbooks, infrastructure, etc) than in any OECD country except the UK [Chart 3 below]. However, schools with a large proportion of students who perform at or above baseline proficiency in mathematics also have much higher quality educational resources and the difference in the index of educational resources between the two types of schools in Australia is one of the largest in the OECD. Only Austria, Chile and Mexico have a larger difference in the quality of educational resources between schools with a large proportion of low performing students and those with a large proportion of students achieving the mathematics standard.

The report found that the incidence of low performance in mathematics is lower in countries and economies where educational resources are distributed more equitably between socio-economically disadvantaged and advantaged schools. However, the distribution of educational resources in Australia is highly inequitable. Only four other OECD countries have a more inequitable distribution of resources between disadvantaged and advantaged schools – Mexico, New Zealand, Turkey and the United States [Chart 4 below].

The report also found that equity in resource allocation is almost unrelated to the share of top performers in mathematics. It says that this suggests that education systems can tackle inequalities in education while simultaneously promoting – and achieving – academic excellence.

The report extensively analyses the policy implications of its findings. It says that the first step for policy makers is to make tackling low performance a priority in their education policy agenda and translate that priority into additional resources. Beyond this, tackling low performance requires a multi-pronged approach, tailored to national and local circumstances. It suggests that an agenda to reduce the incidence of low performance can include several actions:

• Dismantle the multiple barriers to learning.

• Create demanding and supportive learning environments at school.

• Provide remedial support as early as possible.

• Encourage the involvement of parents and local communities.

• Inspire students to make the most of available education opportunities.

• Identify low performers and design a tailored policy strategy.

• Provide targeted support to disadvantaged schools and/or families.

• Offer special programmes for immigrant, minority-language and rural students.

• Tackle gender stereotypes and assist single-parent families.

• Reduce inequalities in access to early education and limit the use of student sorting.

In his introduction to the report, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director of Education and Skills, says that it is urgent to reduce poor performance at school. He says that students who perform poorly at age 15 face a high risk of dropping out of school altogether. By the time they become young adults, poor proficiency in numeracy and literacy can translate into limited access to better-paying and more rewarding jobs, poorer health and less social and political participation. When a large share of the population lacks basic skills, a country’s long-term economic growth and equity are severely compromised.

In a nutshell, this is the case for fully implementing the Gonski funding plan.

Trevor Cobbold

Charts on Inequity in Education in Australia