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Boosting poor PISA results starts in preschool: ACER

The Program for International Student Assessment  (PISA) is a standardised literacy, numeracy and science test of 15-year-olds across 72 countries, conducted by the OECD. Yet it doesn’t measure rote learning. Rather, it tests whether kids can apply their knowledge to real-life scenarios.

For Aussie students, this task has proved difficult. Like the famous tower in Italy, our PISA results have been gradually declining since the test’s inception in 2000.

This year, Australia ranked equal 10th in science (down from 8th in 2012), 12th in reading (down from 10th), and 20th in maths (down from 17th).

Singapore’s students, who tend to benefit from greater private coaching, ranked highest overall.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham met the news with alarm. “Given the wealth of our nation and scale of our investment, we should expect to be a clear education leader”, he said.

Birmingham mostly blamed shoddy teachers. “The single greatest in-school factor in terms of student accomplishment is absolutely the teacher”, he told ABC Radio.

Besides PISA, other testing scores aren’t looking bright with Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) and NAPLAN scores having plateaued. Experts have stressed the criticality of quality early learning to lift our academic game: whether in STEM subjects or across the board.

Dr Sue Thomson, director of the Educational Monitoring and Research Division at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), the Australian PISA report issuer, has echoed those pleas.

Surprised and disappointed by the results, Thomson said “PISA has shown that students who have early childhood education have much better outcomes in PISA.”

“We’ve done some Australian research as well that shows exactly the same thing. It actually shows that early childhood education is one of the most important factors in student achievement.”

She also indicated that teachers aren’t necessarily to blame. “We don’t have any measure of teacher quality”, Thomson explained. Yet she elucidated that there is an issue with teachers teaching subjects outside of their specialised field: a maths teacher teaching biology, for example.

Like its assessment style, PISA has real-life application. Contrary to self-esteem boosting platitudes like ‘it’s the effort that counts’, school results matter, too. Thomson emphasised that these “absolutely” predict success in later life, but not just in the obvious areas:

“Adults with higher levels of literacy and numeracy have much better health outcomes, [and] have much better outcomes in terms of participating in society.”

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