Results from the longest running large-scale international assessment of maths and science show Australia has significantly improved in Year 8 maths and science, and Year 4 science.
More than 580,000 students from 64 countries participated in the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This includes 14,950 Australian students from 571 Australian schools.
In Year 8 maths, Australia came in equal seventh place in the 2019 assessment cycle (up from equal 13th in 2015), along with a number of countries including Ireland, the United States and England. We came behind Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Ireland.
In Year 8 science, Australia also came in equal seventh (up from equal 15th in 2015) along with countries such as Lithuania, Ireland and the US. We were behind Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea, Russia and Finland.
In Year 4 science, Australia came equal ninth (up from equal 18th in 2015) along with countries including the US, England, Hong Kong and Ireland. Australia was behind Singapore, Korea, Russia, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Finland, Latvia and Norway.
In Year 4 maths, however, achievement has not changed since 2007. Australia was outperformed by 22 countries in 2019, similar to 2015. It came equal 23rd along with countries such as Germany, Poland and Canada; and behind Singapore, the US, England and Ireland.
Not just the rankings
This is the seventh time the TIMSS test has been administered. Along with completing tests in maths and science, Year 4 and 8 students involved in TIMSS answer questionnaires on their background and experiences in learning maths and science at school.
Participating in TIMSS allows Australia to measure its progress towards national educational goals, which in 2019 included the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (now the Mparntwe Education Declaration).
In Year 4 maths, Australian students achieved an average score of 516 points. Singapore’s students scored the highest with 625 points, while England achieved 556, Canada 512 and New Zealand 487 points.
Australia’s average score in Year 8 maths was 517 points. This was compared to the highest score of 616 points for Singapore. Australia’s score was not significantly different to that of the US and England, which both achieved 515 points.
Australia not only improved in Year 8 maths and science, and Year 4 science relative to other countries, but also in an absolute sense. Compared to 2015, Australia’s mean score increased by 12 points in Year 8 maths; 16 points in Year 8 science and nine points in Year 4 science.
The TIMSS intermediate international benchmark is the nationally agreed proficient standard for maths and science achievement, which is 475 score points. In 2019 between 68% and 78% of Australian students achieved the required proficiency benchmark in maths and science at both year levels. In Singapore, more than 90% of students achieved this benchmark in both subject areas at both year levels.
Since 2015, the proportion of Australian students achieving this standard improved by five percentage points in Year 8 science. It did not change significantly in Year 4 maths and science, or Year 8 maths.
TIMSS results also provide a measure of Australia’s progress towards the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goal for universal quality education. The TIMSS low international benchmark is an agreed global indicator of minimum proficiency in maths at the end of lower secondary schooling.
In the 2019 study, 90% of Australian Year 8 students achieved this benchmark, which was similar to 2015 and slightly higher than the 2019 international median of 87%. Meanwhile, 98% of students in Singapore and Chinese Taipei, and 99% of students in Japan achieved minimum proficiency in Year 8 maths.
Differences between groups
While of course these findings are positive, there are cautions evident when making comparisons among demographic groups.
There was no significant difference between the average performance of Australian girls and boys in Year 8 maths, Year 4 science or Year 8 science.
But boys outperformed girls in Year 4 maths in 27 of the 58 participating countries, including Australia.
The proportion of students who attained the national proficient standard was about the same for boys and girls (69% for girls, 70% for boys). But the proportion of boys who achieved the advanced benchmark (12%) was significantly higher than the proportion of girls (8%) who achieved at this level.
While the achievement of First Nations Australian students and other Australian students has converged slightly in Year 4 and Year 8 science since 1995, the gaps are glaringly wide in both subject areas, but particularly in maths.
At Year 4 level in maths, 42% of First Nations students achieved the national proficient standard, compared to 72% of other Australian students. And 25% of First Nations students did not achieve the low benchmark, compared to 8% of other Australian students.
In Year 8 maths, 39% of First Nations students compared to 70% of other Australian students achieved the National Proficient standard, while 29% of First Nations students compared to 8% of other Australian students did not achieve the Low benchmark.
Student socioeconomic background
The largest gaps in achievement at school are often those defined by a students’ socioeconomic background. In TIMSS, several measures are used to define socioeconomic background, but the common method for Year 4 and Year 8 is simple but effective. Students are asked to estimate the number of books in their home within five categories. These are then collapsed into three:
0-10: few books
11-200: average number of books
more than 200: many books.
Analysis has shown living in a home with many books influences academic achievement (or by implication, having a home environment that values literacy, the acquisition of knowledge and general academic support) in a positive manner.
In Year 4, 17% of students identified as living in a home with many books, and 28% with few books. In Year 8, 20% of students said their home had many books and 31% few books.
The differences between students with many books and those with few books is large at both year levels and for both subject areas. For example:
in Year 8 maths, 83% of students living in a home with many books achieved the national proficient standard, compared to 48% of those from homes with few books
in Year 8 science, 90% of students from homes with many books achieved the standard, compared to 52% of those from homes with few books
in Year 8 maths and science, around 3% of students from homes with many books compared to around 20% of students from homes with few books did not achieve the low benchmark.
Acknowledging the primary underlying factor behind poor achievement is socioeconomic background, and finding ways of redressing the imbalance in opportunities and resources available to these students, will help lift achievement for all Australian students.
Sue Thomson is the Deputy CEO (Research), Australian Council for Educational Research