Counting what counts — three things you won’t see in the PISA headlines


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PISA is out and continues to hit the headlines.

Australia has, again, slipped in international rankings. We’ve fallen behind countries that we were level pegging with in 2000. We are still above-average in reading and science, but not significantly different from the OECD average in mathematics.

We’re not alone in our apparent decline — even Finland has dropped in rankings.

Our students are now level-pegging with students in countries like Germany, New Zealand, and the US. That doesn’t seem like something to be ashamed of. Especially as Australia excelled on the 2015 PISA collaborative problem-solving test.

And of course, PISA only measures a few domains. It can’t tell us how resilient a young person is, or their level of creativity, or inform us about our young people’s ethical understanding. All these traits are important but much harder to measure in standardised testing.

Our national goals for young Australians, which are due to be signed off by education ministers in a few days’ time, bear little resemblance to what PISA measures. The goals are that young people become:

  • confident and creative individuals;
  • successful learners and active; and
  • informed community members.

Successful learners may score better in reading, maths, and science as measured by PISA — or perhaps they could excel in music, history, philosophy, sport, or art.

As a nation, we agree a breadth of talent needs to be supported — but not all success can or should be captured in standardised testing.

Depending on what you read at the moment, our students are failing, our teachers have failed, or the whole system is to blame. Time for back-to-basics.

It is not that we don’t have a problem: we do. It just is not the problem we are being fed.

Nor is the solution proposed going to do anything more than alienate further generations of young people.

Here are three headlines you won’t see coming out of PISA but that are of much greater concern for Australia than a slip in ratings.

This is a much more complex story than just wanting to climb the PISA ladder.

50,000 children across Australia have disappeared from our education system

My recent report, co-authored with Melbourne Graduate School of Education Dean Jim Watterston, reveals some shocking statistics. It focuses on the 50,000 young people aged between 6 and 16 who are not participating in education of any type.

These children aren’t simply absent from school — they are not enrolled.

Some of these children — around a third — are of primary school age.

We only have estimates; exact numbers might be higher, as governments and departments do not track how many children are not in school. Perhaps it is not in their interests, because then you would need to act.

Reasons for children not being in school are varied. Some children have never enrolled, some have changed address and never been followed up. Others, more worryingly, were pushed out of the system, silently exited when their problems became too great for their school or allowed to disappear given their negative impact on school NAPLAN scores.

These children do not feature in the PISA collection — they were never supported to make it that far. There is no incentive to include them — the numbers would look worse.

It is a tragedy that so many children are without education, but it is easy to ignore because they are hidden.

A third of young people are worried about mental health

Young people are striving for a sense of belonging and seeking wellbeing.

The Mission Australia Youth Survey 2019 was released last week. Close to 40% of young people rated mental health as their number one concern.

Young people were personally concerned about their levels of stress and mental health.

Many young people do not feel safe or valued.

Just under a third of students do not feel like they have a say at school or university.

Given these figures, it is not surprising that 40% of young people are ambivalent or negative about their future.

Our goal of confident young Australians is not being realised — young people want to belong, to be valued and to have a say.

Our current education system’s response of turning young people into numbers, ranking schools and individually ranking young people at the end of year 12, works against this.

Students miss a month of school per year

The Report on Government Services highlights that around 30% of students are missing a month of school per year.

PISA reports that one-in-five students had skipped school, and nearly one-in-two ran late in the two weeks before PISA. PISA also reports that a third of students are bullied a few times each month. It is hard to motivate stressed students who may fear for their personal safety to attend school regularly.

Of course, these don’t make for dramatic headlines like Australia losing the international education race.

Something is wrong, and we need to act

We do not need to compare our performance to other countries’ to know something is wrong. Fifty thousand kids not enrolled in school, a third not attending, and a growing sense of disconnection and mental health concerns from young people.

These headlines point to a need to focus our education system on engaging all learners, creating learning environments and rich learning tasks catered to a diversity of student needs and ensuring no student falls through the cracks. We must start early to level-up childhood disadvantage, provide wrap-around support for students, and motivate all students to achieve their personal best.

We should stop measuring students, schools and systems just by simple rank numbers. PISA itself shows collaborative environments result in better outcomes, and our current competitive approach actively discourages schools and systems to embrace the most vulnerable young people.

It is imperative we fast-forward on education reform to engage all students and support them to thrive.

Back-to-basics won’t shift these figures. It will make them worse.

Megan O’Connell is an Honorary Senior Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education and director of Megan O’Connell Consulting

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