Measure for measure: a review of outcomes of school education in Australia

15 Aug 2013

This report provides evidence beyond simple international rankings that the achievement levels of Australian students declined in the period 2000 to 2012.


Over the past two decades there has been an increase in the attention given to education policy, practice and improvement. Stories about education abound in news media and other forums to a greater extent than ever seemed possible in previous times. Some of this quickened interest in education has been driven by economic considerations but much has been motivated by an understanding that people need to have a firm grounding in appropriate knowledge, understandings and skills as well as a disposition to continue learning as they grow in order to live as effective and productive citizens in the twenty-first century.

Along with a burgeoning interest in, and rising expectations of, education policy and practice comes a desire to identify and understand best practice at various levels. Such endeavours depend on the accumulation of reliable evidence from multiple sources. Understanding the variations in learning outcomes that exist among systems, schools and students, as well as the factors associated with those variations, can provide a starting point for these endeavours. The information derived from analysing variations in outcomes can guide efforts to ensure that social gradients are minimized and gaps between groups of students are reduced.

In addition it is important to monitor change so as to inform judgements about whether outcomes are improving, to what extent they are improving and whether there is improvement for all students. Judgements about improvement depend upon data that are comparable over time and expert analyses that can identify real change amongst the fluctuations that exist in data gathered over time. In addition, perspectives on change that can be related to changes in policies, practices and contexts provide a stronger basis for understanding than those derived from cross-sectional analyses at any given time.

Large-scale assessment surveys depend on high-level psychometric and technical expertise. That expertise needs to be maintained and developed. It is an area of comparative strength in Australia that has been built on the long involvement of the Australian Council for Educational Research in international achievement studies starting with the first international mathematics study in the 1960s. While research methods have evolved over that period of time, being part of successive international studies has ensured that Australia has been at the forefront of the development of modern methods of design and analysis in this field. Those methods have found application in national, as well as international, achievement surveys.

Governments are increasingly committed to making publicly available as much information about learning outcomes as possible. International achievement studies have a strong tradition of producing comprehensive international and national reports. In addition the organisations conducting international achievement studies make data available for secondary analyses by other scholars. This means that there is expert scrutiny of methods, analyses and conclusions. It is an important aspect of transparency that depends on the independence of those conducting the studies from those managing education systems.

Over past years the reports of national and international achievement studies have provided much valuable information about the achievements of students in Australian schools, differences among jurisdictions and groups of students and differences between the achievement of Australian students and their peers in other countries. The emergence of a national commitment to school improvement makes it timely to provide an integrated appraisal of the results of these large-scale assessment studies.

Judgements about the impact of policies and practices on student outcomes need to be informed by reliable evidence about the ways in which achievement varies with differences in policy and practice and about the extent to which achievement changes over time. This report focuses on changes in achievement over time. It notes that there has been a small decline in reading and mathematics achievement among students in the middle years of secondary school since 2000, stability in science and mathematics achievement among Year 8 students since 1994, a small improvement in mathematics achievement among students in Year 4 since 1994 and a small improvement in reading achievement among students in Year 3 since 2008. The results from future successive assessment cycles in the programs reviewed in this report will be best appraised in relation to the previous trends so that any changes can be related to policy, practice and context.

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