Tech & Science Why are Tasmanian students falling behind the rest of the nation?

21:03  05 december  2019
21:03  05 december  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person wearing a hat: Experts have pinpointed four key factors contributing to Tasmania's student performance. (ABC News: Rhiana Whitson)© Provided by ABC NEWS Experts have pinpointed four key factors contributing to Tasmania's student performance. (ABC News: Rhiana Whitson)

Tasmania was the first state in Australia to introduce compulsory education in 1868, so why are its student falling behind those in the rest of the nation?

A new international study has found Tasmanian 15-year-olds are continuing to struggle to meet the average OECD standard for reading, maths and science.

In the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released this week, Tasmania had the lowest proportion of high performers in the country and the second highest proportion, behind the Northern Territory, of low performers in each of the three assessment areas, with maths the toughest subject.

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And while the test is only a "point in time" snapshot of how Australia is faring on a global scale, the results replicate what has previously been found in NAPLAN tests for Tasmania's Year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students.

They also come of the back of years of low retention rates for the state.

So, why the low grades?

It could be put down to four main reasons: socioeconomic status, students being younger when in certain year levels, the need for more specialist teachers and the "over-crowded" curriculum.

Sue Thomson, who is a former teacher and manages PISA in Australia, said states and territories with lower socioeconomic students often performed at lower levels.

"Even though they're not all low-SES, there's enough of them that that's tipped the balance, so that's possibly why Tasmania's score has dropped," Dr Thomson said.

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A 2018 Grattan Institute report titled Measuring Student Progress found while "Tasmania and the Northern Territory are often thought of as Australia's education under-performers, when school advantage is taken into account, this is not the case".

"This result suggests their schools are not, on average, doing a bad job. Rather, they are doing a tough job reasonably well," the report found.

Does the later school starting age affect levels?

In some ways, yes. Tasmanian children can't officially start school until they are five years old.

Most go to kindergarten, a preschool often on the same site as their chosen primary school, from the age of four, but prep is Tasmanian children's first official year of schooling.

By comparison, New South Wales children can start primary education when they are four years and five months old; Victorian children when they are four years and eight months old, and Queensland children when they are four-and-a-half.

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Tasmania's Government proposed bringing its primary school start age down to four-and-a-half in 2016, but that plan was dropped due to backlash from teachers, childcare centres and parents.

When comparing the recent PISA results data, 31 per cent of the 929 Tasmanian students tested were in year 9, the most of any other state or territory, the rest were in year 10.

Fourteen per cent of 15-year-olds tested in Western Australia and Queensland were studying year 11 curricula; students in those two states usually graduate from year 12 when they are 17, compared to 18 in Tasmania, so they are essentially a year in front in their studies.

Tasmania's Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff said the year level differences from the same age groups were important to note when comparing student results.

"This means that the results are not comparable to other states and territories, and Tasmania's results in PISA need to be understood in this context," he said.

However, Dr Thomson said even if the recent PISA results focussed on just year 10 students, "the results wouldn't change a great deal for Tassie".

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She said it was also important to assess children of the same age.

"Not only in a global environment, but in an Australian environment, you want your kids to be competitive with kids from the mainland states, in terms of jobs for example," she said.

How does Tasmania's college system fit in?

Tasmania and the ACT are the only two education systems in Australia that have a college system — a completely separate school for students to complete years 11 and 12.

Until recent years, most Tasmanian government high schools only went to year 10.

At the end of year 10, students would celebrate with a leavers' dinner — which has been credited with helping foster the notion year 10 was the end of school.

The Tasmanian government has attributed the state's poor retention and completion rates to that notion, and has used it as a catalyst for why it is extending all public Tasmanian high schools to year 12 by 2022.

From early indicators, it appears the school extensions to year 12 are helping lift the state's school completion rates.

After several years of stagnant growth, the state's retention rate for students going for year 10 to year 12 rose for its second consecutive year to 72.2 per cent last year, the highest it's ever been, according to the Department of Education's 2018/19 Annual Report.

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The national Year 7 to 12 Apparent Retention Rate is 84.4 per cent, according to Australian Bureau of Statistic figures.

ACT students usually perform above the national average, with the jurisdiction having the nation's highest retention rate, which is mostly attributed to its high socioeconomic status.

Can the state turn it around?

Educators believe Tasmania is already on its way to doing that — the results just aren't quite coming through yet.

The main two areas the state has seen improvements in recently are reading and writing.

Professor Natalie Brown, director of the Peter Underwood Centre in Hobart, said the state needed to take examples from countries like Estonia.

"They really put effort into early learning, that's something that Tasmania is doing, but we're yet to see those results come all the way through the system," Professor Brown said.

"With young people's brains, most of the development is in the first three years, so putting effort into child and family centres and working with young families and babies may seems like a long way away from PISA testing, but it's really critical."

The Tasmanian Government began offering free preschool to three-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds at the start of this year, and it will continue rolling its program to more families next year.

What else can Tasmania do?

Education experts believe Tasmania also needs more math specialist teachers to lift numeracy rates.

Dr Thomson said a lack of qualified maths teachers is an issue plaguing the nation.

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"They're not qualified to teach maths and that's a problem because they tend to teach to the middle, instead of being able to scaffold the weaker students and extend the brighter students," Dr Thomson said.

"We were short of maths teachers 30 years ago and we're still short of maths teachers … you can't just conjure them up out of thin air."

Tasmanian Principals Association president Sally Milbourne said setting long-term goals and adjusting the state's curriculum could also help.

"There's a lot of discussion around how over-crowded our curriculum is and I think that's something that probably needs to be looked at," Dr Milbourne said.

"We only have a certain amount of hours in the day that we work with our students … if we keep adding to the curriculum without taking things out, we automatically narrow the amount of time that you can focus on one particular thing."

The main subjects most national and international studies test in are maths, literacy and science, despite the amount of subject offerings at schools now being much more expansive.

Who needs to help change attainment levels?

Everyone. The role of education can't be left to just our schools, teachers and government, everyone needs to play a role, most agree.

Professor Brown is of the belief attitudes towards education, in particular maths, also need to improve to make a difference.

"We need to be having positive conversations with young people about school being really important," Professor Brown said.

"If students are struggling or they're a bit disengaged, to talk with them about why and help them connect back into learning."

Educators have said students also need to be taught through real-life experiences to remain engaged.

Education Minister Jeremy Rockliff said the government knows there is work to do.

"The Government's Literacy Framework 2019 — 2022 released earlier this year outlines how we will support all learners to develop the skills and confidence to succeed in literacy over the next four years and work has commenced to develop a Numeracy Framework for release in 2020," Mr Rockliff said.

Tasmania currently has 85.4 full-time equivalent literacy coaches working across the state, and a further 35 positions will be made by 2023, the Government said.

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