Barry McGaw speaks about Australian education in an international context

August 27, 2010

Professor Barry McGaw, Chair of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, spoke on driving education reform at Murdoch University’s Banksia Association Lecture on Tuesday, August 24.

Professor McGaw talked about the quality and equity of Australian education, about improving school education with an Australian curriculum and fair comparisons for identifying ‘best practice’.

Using the mean performances of countries from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Professor McGaw showed Australia’s literacy and reading results in an international context.

He said in 2000 Australia ranked in 4th place in literacy and that Australia’s relative position in reading in PISA had slipped from 2nd in 2000 and 2003 to 6th in 2006.

He said the results also reflected that around 14 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds had literacy levels that were not adequate to support serious further academic learning, but added that was essentially the same as in other high performing countries.

Professor McGaw pointed out that the significant drop in Australia’s mean performance was due to a decline among high performers, showing the importance of focusing on performances across the whole range – a position adopted by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority in the development of the My School website.

Australia’s ranks in mathematics in the PISA results on the three occasions were also high but not as high as in reading.

And Australia’s ranks in science were high on all three occasions – 3rd in PISA 2000 and 4th in PISA 2003 and PISA 2006.

Professor McGaw said students’ achievement levels were only part of the story: “Their level of engagement with their study is another important component.”

“While Australian students rank at the top among countries in their performance in science shows that they rank low in their level of engagement. The one exception is in their sense of self-efficacy in science.”

On all the other measures of engagement, Australian students rank low among the 57 countries for which the data was available.

Professor McGaw also spoke about social impacts on education: “In every country, socially advantaged students are generally educationally advantaged.

“The international comparisons, however, make clear that this effect is less marked in some countries than others. The countries where it is less marked have more equitable educational outcomes.

“Australia is a ‘high-quality, low-equity’ country, with a high average performance but a relatively steep social gradient.

“Canada, a country like Australia in many respects, is ‘high quality and high-equity’. Australia should aspire to be like it and others [with a similar result].”

Professor McGaw’s full presentation is available here via Lectopia.

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