Australia’s Maths Performance Relative to East Asia Improves in Secondary School

The gap in student performance between Australia and East Asian countries has been a focus of much debate in recent times. A paper recently published by the Institute of Education at the University of London shows that while the gap in mathematics is quite large in primary school much of it has been eliminated by age 16. It also shows that Australia’s mathematics results are more strongly associated with socio-economic background at age 16 than in most other countries included in the study.

The paper shows that there is a large gap in mathematics between Australia and East Asian countries at age 10, but that it does not increase between ages 10 and 14 and actually decreases significantly between 14 and 16. By age 16, the gap between Japan and Australia at age 10 is reduced by 81% while the gap with Singapore, the top performing country, is reduced by 57%. This dramatic improvement between 14 and 16 suggests that Australia could be even closer to these countries by the end of secondary school.

These results indicate that maths education in the middle years of secondary school in Australia is very strong. They also suggest that more attention should be given to improving mathematics education in primary school and junior secondary school.

Options to improve primary school mathematics include increasing pre-school enrolment rates, increasing pre-service training in mathematics, and increasing student participation and engagement in at least basic mathematics through to the end of secondary school. For example, pre-school enrolments in Australia are amongst the lowest in the OECD and there are no requirements for pre-service training in mathematics for primary school teachers in Australia in contrast to several East Asian countries.

It is said that many primary school teachers in Australia have a “maths phobia”. One reason for this is that many do not continue with basic mathematics or statistics through to the end of school. Some element of compulsion in mathematics to the upper secondary years could be considered.

The paper mentions increased tuition of students as a way of improving advanced maths achievement. This is very common in East Asia where students have a very high educational load with long hours spent on after school homework, study and tutoring. Australia should be very careful not to head down the track of obsession with homework, study and coaching from an early age. To do so would create the very real danger of replicating the epidemic of myopia in East Asian countries among young children.

The study also shows a strong relationship between socio-economic background and student maths achievement in Australia at primary school which increases between ages 10 and 16 by more than in many other countries, including Japan and Singapore. This suggests greater investment in reducing the effects of disadvantage on education in primary and secondary school as recommended by the Gonski report.

The paper uses results from the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to analyse how cross-national differences in math test scores change between ages 10 and 16. It compares results in 13 countries including four East Asian countries (Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong). The paper focuses on a comparison of results between England and East Asian countries, but it includes results for Australia.

The data used in the study is from TIMSS 2003 (4th grade), TIMSS 2007 (8th grade) and PISA 2009 (age 15/16) so as to track the progress of students born approximately in the same year. The paper notes that there are some limitations in using this data from different assessments. In particular TIMSS focuses upon ability to meet internationally agreed curriculum standards while PISA examines how well young people can apply their learning to ‘real life’ situations.

Average test scores
The paper shows that Australia is well behind the leading East Asian nations in average maths achievement at age 9/10. The Australian average score at age 9/10 is below the average of the 13 countries in the study and well below that of the East Asian countries in the study (Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan).

There is little change in the performance of Australian students relative to East Asian countries between ages 10-14. Australian students do not appear to fall further behind between ages 10-14 as the change in mean test scores is not significantly different to that in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, although it is less than that of Japan.

In contrast, there is a huge improvement in Australia’s relative performance between ages 10-16, indicating a significant increase between ages 14-16. The increase in average mathematics test scores in Australia between 10 and 16 is much larger than in any of the East Asian countries.

The gap between Australia and the East Asian countries at age 10 is very much reduced by age 16. The gap between Australia and Japan is reduced by 81%; the gap with Taiwan is reduced by 62%; the gap with Singapore, the top achieving country at age 16, is reduced by 57%; and that with Hong Kong by 55%. Thus, Australia’s mathematics test scores are much closer to those of East Asian countries by age 16.

This suggests that mathematics education in the middle secondary years in Australia is very strong. It is not during secondary school that the leading East Asian countries pull away from Australia in maths. Rather, the causal factor(s) behind these countries strong performance seems to occur before the age of 9/10 and that this relative advantage is then maintained to age 14, after which it is much reduced although not fully overcome.

The average maths score for Australian students is also well below that of England and the US at age 10 and at age 14, but improves by much more between ages 14 and 16 to be well above those countries at age 16.

Inequality of outcomes
The paper also analyses the maths test scores for the bottom and top achieving students at the three ages in the different countries. They show a similar pattern as the average scores. At age 10, the bottom and top 10% of students are well behind those in the East Asian countries and also behind those in England and the US. However, the Australian performance improves relative to these countries by age 16.

Between primary school and the end of secondary school, the maths scores of the bottom 10 per cent of students in Australia increases relative to the average of the 13 countries in the study. The gap between the lowest achieving children in Australia and the lowest achieving children in East Asian countries is also reduced. There is a small increase in Australia’s relative score from age 10 to 14 and a bigger increase from age 10 to 16. Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan all decline relative to the average for the 13 countries from age 10-16. The gap between Australia and Hong Kong, the best performing country for the lowest 10% of students, at age 10 is reduced by 71% by age 16 and the gap with Singapore is reduced by 75%.

Despite this progress, a significant gap remains between the lowest achievers in Australia and the lowest achievers in Hong Kong and Singapore at age 16, but there is not a lot of difference with Japan and Taiwan. However, the results of the bottom 10% of students in Australia are better than both England and the US by age 16.

A similar picture exists for the top achieving students. Between primary school and the end of secondary school, the maths scores of the top 10 per cent of students in Australia increase relative to the average of the 13 countries in the study. The top achieving students in Australia are a long way behind their counterparts in East Asia at the end of primary school but the gap is reduced by age 16. The gap with Singapore, the best performing country for the highest achieving 10% of students, is reduced by 50%, the gap with Hong Kong is reduced by 41%, and the gap with Japan by 78%.

The top 10% of students in Australia are also behind that of England and the US at age 10, but by age 16 have improved to be above those countries.

Inequality of educational opportunity
The paper also analyses inequality of educational opportunity in the 13 countries. It measures educational inequality as the difference in math test scores between high (more than 200 books) and low (25 or fewer books) socio-economic groups.

The study shows that Australia has a relatively strong relationship between socio-economic background and student achievement. It is similar to that of the US but below that of England.

It is also interesting to note that there is no common pattern across the East Asian countries, with quite large socio-economic differences occurring in Singapore and Taiwan but smaller differences in Hong Kong and Japan. At age 16, the socio-economic gradient in Australia is similar to that of Singapore and Taiwan but higher than in Hong Kong and Japan.

The relationship gets stronger at between the ages of 10 and 16. Students from advantaged backgrounds extend their lead over their disadvantaged peers by age 16. This happens in all countries in the study but the increase in Australia is exceeded only in Scotland and Slovenia. It is similar to the increase in Hong Kong and Taiwan but much larger than in Singapore and Japan. The increase in the socio-economic gradient in Australia is also larger than in England and the US.

Policy implications
There is much hand-wringing in Australia about its poor educational achievement levels in comparison with East Asian countries. However, the results reported in the paper show that mathematics education in the middle years of secondary school is very strong, having overcome much of the achievement gap with East Asian countries at age 16. Australia also jumps well ahead of England and the US by age 16 after starting behind at age 10.

The results suggest that more needs to be done to improve mathematics education in primary school and, perhaps, junior secondary school. Options canvassed in the paper for England include increasing pre-school enrolment rates, increasing primary school teacher remuneration, and increasing the quality and status of teachers as possible policy interventions.

These and other options should be considered in Australia. For example, Australia has nearly the lowest enrolment rate in pre-school in the OECD, with only Canada, Switzerland and Turkey having lower rates. Only 51% of Australian children aged 4 in 2010 were enrolled in pre-school compared to the OECD average of 79%. In contrast, 97% of Japanese four year-olds and 82% of Korean four year-olds were in pre-school. Figures compiled on a different basis in the Report on Government Services show that only 55% of eligible children are enrolled in pre-school in NSW and only 39% in Queensland compared to between 85 and 100% in other states.

Including mathematics in primary school teacher training could contribute significantly to improving mathematics achievement. According to a report published by the Group of Eight Universities, there are no requirements for pre-service training in mathematics for primary school teachers in Australia. This contrasts with requirements in several East Asian countries. The report says that a “mathematics phobia” is common amongst primary school teachers and trainees.

Teacher workforce surveys by the Australian Council for Educational Research show that 55% of teachers of junior secondary mathematics and 35% of teachers of senior secondary mathematics do not hold the recommended tertiary mathematics qualifications for teaching secondary mathematics. Furthermore, many of these teachers have completed pre-service training in mathematics teaching.

There are also widespread warnings of decreasing supply of qualified maths teachers in secondary school with falling numbers of students studying tertiary mathematics. This does not bode well for Australia’s continued success in mathematics in the later years of secondary school unless action is taken to reverse the decline.

Greater consideration should be given to increasing participation and engagement of students in mathematics until the end of Year 12. It may be necessary to make at least some basic level of mathematics compulsory in Years 11 and 12. Whilst this may be controversial, it should be discussed as a policy option.

Improving teacher training and increasing participation and engagement in mathematics at school are likely to be the most effective ways of improving mathematics achievement. According greater weight to mathematics in primary school could compromise other curriculum goals. It is questionable whether significantly greater weight should be given to mathematics education in primary school at the expense of other curriculum areas such as reading, science, arts and music, and physical education.

The paper also mentions increased tuition of students as a way of increasing maths. East Asian countries give high priority to mathematics education from an early age. Many more hours are spent on homework, home study and tutoring after school in East Asia than in Australia. Much of it is spent on mathematics.

In contrast, Australian education tends to give more weight to the all-round education of young children. For example, play and sporting games for the young have much greater acceptance in Australian culture than in East Asia.

Australia should be very wary of taking this path. There is a very real danger of compromising the eye health of young children with much more intensive focus on mathematics, and indeed other subjects as well, after school. Myopia is rampant amongst young children in East Asian countries with the long hours spent after-school studying and where children spend little time out of doors compared with Australian children.

Myopia is at epidemic proportions in the East Asian countries of China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Recent surveys show that up to 30% of seven year olds are myopic in Singapore and Hong Kong. Some 80% of Chinese students (at least in cities on the east coast) and over 90% of Korean students are myopic by the end of secondary school. Around 20% of students at the end of school are highly myopic which means that very serious problems emerge for adults in their 20s and 30s and which can end in premature blindness later in life. Early effective blindness amongst the adult population in these countries is now a major health issue.

In contrast, the prevalence of myopia in Australia is much lower with about 30% of 17 year-olds myopic according to a recent survey by researchers at the ANU and the University of Sydney.

Recent research studies show a strong association between the hours spent on education and this epidemic in myopia. The education load outside school in East Asia appears to be a major factor contributing to the emergence of the epidemic. This suggests that Australia should not adopt such an all-consuming focus on after school homework, study and tutoring. Indeed, there is increasing recognition in official circles in East Asian countries of the impact of the education load and policies are being introduced to reduce the time spent on education outside school hours.

One very important policy implication of the results arises from the increasing association between socio-economic background and mathematics achievement in Australia from primary school through to age 16. It suggests that more investment is needed in improving the mathematics skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. While this also occurs in other countries, the strength of the relationship in Australia increases by more than in many other countries included in the study. This finding gives support to the recommendation of the Gonski report for increased funding for disadvantaged students and schools in Australia.

Trevor Cobbold

John Jerrim & Alvaro Choi 2013. The Mathematics Skills of School Children: How Does England Compare to the High Performing East Asian Jurisdictions? Working Paper No. 13-03, Department of Quantitative Social Science, Institute of Education, University of London, February.

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