School test results: not as bad as they look

Initial teacher education providers have had a terrible ten years, accused of not preparing graduates for classrooms – with critics pointing out not-great school student scores on standard tests.

But Sally Larsen (Uni New England) suggests results over time do not universally support a chronicle of decline. In a new (pre-print) paper Dr Larsen analyses Australian results from three international assessments, Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Programme for International Student Assessment, as well as local NAPLAN.

The consensus of the four, she reports, “fails to support the prevailing narrative of a broadscale decline in academic skills attainment.” 

Which is immensely important, given governments use test results as a measure of student skills and ITE performance but there have been few attempts to report the outcomes of the three international studies over time.

At the very top level (the detail in the paper for all programs is very wide and very deep) she finds:

  • PIRLS: Y4 students improved 2011-16 and stayed similar ‘21 on mean performance and proportion at minimum benchmark
  • TIMMS: Y4 maths, relatively stable and above average for all participating countries. Y4 science, “no strong pattern” for proportion of students at top/bottom of achievement distribution. Y8 maths, average ranging around international mean.  Y8 science, similar to Y 4.
  • PISA: steady declines on maths literacy 2003-2018 to meet the OECD mean. Science stable to 2009, declining since but still higher than OECD mean in 2018
  • NAPLAN: Numeracy results, “largely stable” since 2008. Reading and spelling , increases in  Ys3 and 5, stable for older. Writing small moves up and down 2011-2022.

Overall, Dr Lars argues, while “achievement ‘gaps,’” “have remained remarkably persistent in the context of increasing school accountability,” “there is no strong evidence that the average achievement of Australian students has suffered a precipitous decline.”

And in a message that appears to be for ministers and their advisers, past and present, she writes, “the causative factors at work that contribute to student’s levels of achievement on these assessments are arguably too complex for direct recommendations to be made about the specific teaching practices that may contribute to improved achievement on these types of standardised tests.”



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