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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2002  
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Contents >> Education >> Educational Attainment: Literacy and numeracy among school students

Educational Attainment: Literacy and numeracy among school students

In 2000, 15 year old girls scored higher on average than 15 year old boys in reading literacy (546 compared with 513). Performance was much the same in mathematical literacy and scientific literacy.

Literacy and numeracy have long been recognised as providing the basic skills needed for functioning in work and every day life. Proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics are indicators of social wellbeing for all people, providing not only skills for interacting with the world, but also the foundations for further education in and beyond school. People who carry lower levels of literacy and numeracy through to adulthood are more likely to be unemployed than people with higher levels of literacy and numeracy (see Australian Social Trends 1998, Literacy skills). In a society that is increasing its demand for workers with higher levels of education, basic literacy and numeracy skills become essential.

In a recent international study by the OECD of reading, scientific and mathematical literacy among 15 year olds, Australian students performed consistently well, and scored comparably with countries such as Canada and New Zealand.1 While Australian students attained a good result overall, achievement was not uniform across students with different characteristics. For example, girls outperformed boys in reading literacy, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students generally scored lower than other students.1

In 1997, the State, Territory and Commonwealth Education Ministers agreed on a National Literacy and Numeracy Plan. The goal of the plan was that every child leaving primary school in Australia should meet nationally agreed minimum standards in literacy and numeracy. This 'back to basics' approach aimed to measure literacy and numeracy from the first years of schooling, and to develop early intervention strategies for those students having difficulties, thereby redressing some inequalities in educational outcomes later in life.


Literacy and numeracy
In this article, literacy and numeracy generally refer to the skills needed to communicate ideas and to make sense of the world through language and numbers.

Although literacy and numeracy are areas of social concern for adults, this article deals with the literacy and numeracy skills of primary and secondary school students - their performance in tests and the implications of their performance for future education and employment outcomes. Two data sources are used: the Year 3 national benchmarks developed as part of the National Literacy and Numeracy Plan, and Australian data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the OECD for 15 year olds.


Factors affecting literacy and numeracy
Literacy and numeracy achievement is associated with a variety of social and demographic factors, such as sex, location, cultural and family background, personality, learning style and school attended. Although these factors are discussed separately in this article, they are interlinked and shed light on some of the characteristics of students likely to be at risk of not achieving adequate levels of literacy and numeracy.

...sex
Learning outcomes for girls and boys are of particular interest because of recent concerns about a perceived decline in the levels of boys' educational attainment.1 However, in 2000, there was little difference between the proportions of girls and boys reaching either the Year 3 national reading benchmark (94% compared with 91%) or the Year 3 national numeracy benchmark (both 93%).

The difference between girls' and boys' educational performance, for reading skills at least, appeared to be more pronounced at older ages. In 2000, among Year 5 students, 90% of girls reached the Year 5 reading benchmark, compared with 85% of boys. However, the proportions of girls and boys reaching the Year 5 numeracy benchmark were much the same (90% of girls compared with 89% of boys). A similar pattern emerged in the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment for 15 year olds, with girls scoring higher on average than boys in reading literacy (546 compared with 513). There was little difference in scores between girls and boys for mathematical literacy (527 for girls and 539 for boys) and scientific literacy (529 for girls and 526 for boys).


READING MATHEMATICAL AND SCIENTIFIC LITERACY SCORES OF AUSTRALIAN 15 YEAR OLDS - 2000
READING AND NUMERACY BENCHMARK ACHIEVEMENT OF YEAR 3 STUDENTS - 2000
Source: OECD, Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000.Source: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, National Report on Schooling in Australia: Preliminary Paper, 2000.


...State or Territory
In 2000, across Australia, the highest proportions of Year 3 students reaching the national reading benchmark were located in Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory (96% and 95%, respectively). Around 65% of Year 3 students in the Northern Territory reached the reading benchmark, the lowest proportion of all the States and Territories. The pattern was much the same for the Year 3 numeracy benchmark, with students in Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory being the most likely to reach the benchmark (97% and 96%, respectively). Again, the Northern Territory had the lowest proportion of students reaching the benchmark (81%).

Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2000 showed a similar distribution of scores for 15 year olds. Students in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Western Australia tended to score the highest on average in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy, while students in the Northern Territory scored the lowest of all States and Territories. Low results for Northern Territory students are associated with the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students comprise a large proportion of the student population, and generally scored lower than all students in both the Programme for International Student Assessment and the national benchmarks.

BENCHMARK ACHIEVEMENT OF YEAR 3 STUDENTS - 2000

Proportion reaching the benchmark

Reading
Numeracy
%
%

State or Territory
    New South Wales
93.1
93.2
    Victoria
93.0
96.5
    Queensland
92.6
91.4
    South Australia
86.8
85.3
    Western Australia
95.8
90.5
    Tasmania
91.2
92.8
    Northern Territory
65.3
81.4
    Australian Capital Territory
95.1
95.7
Language background other than English(a)
90.8
90.3
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
76.9
73.7
All students
92.5
92.7

(a) Depending on State or Territory, this group was either identified from responses to questions asked about the languages students or their families spoke at home; from questions asked about their own or their parents' country of birth; from enrolment records; or from English as a second language program records.

Source: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, National Report on Schooling in Australia: Preliminary Paper, 2000.


Students' literacy and numeracy
The Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs has established national benchmarks for reading, writing, spelling and numeracy for Year 3, 5 and 7 students. 'Benchmark' refers to a nationally agreed minimum acceptable standard, without which a student would have difficulty making sufficient progress at school.2 This article examines characteristics of Year 3 students in the Year 3 reading and numeracy benchmark studies in 2000, in which the majority of students in Australia participated. Starting ages at school vary in Australia, which may have a minor impact on the data. In addition, the method used for identifying students with a language background other than English varied according to State or Territory. This group was either identified from responses to questions asked about the languages students or their families spoke at home; from questions asked about their own or their parents' country of birth; from enrolment records; or from English as a second language program records.

The Programme for International Student Assessment was developed by the OECD and its first survey took place in 2000. It assesses the abilities of 15 year olds in various countries (15 year olds being generally in the last year of compulsory education) to apply knowledge and skills to real-life problems and situations. It measures literacy in three domains: reading literacy, scientific literacy and mathematical literacy, and uses a scaling method which assigns scores so that 500 is the OECD average, with about two-thirds of all students in OECD countries scoring between 400 and 600. Australian students scored above the 500 average in all three literacy domains. For reading literacy, the average score for Australian students was 528, with about two-thirds scoring between 426 and 630. For mathematical literacy the figure was 533 (with two-thirds of students scoring between 443 and 623), while for scientific literacy the figure was 528 (with two-thirds of students scoring between 434 and 622). In the Australian PISA sample, 41 very remote mainland schools were excluded, which may have contained high proportions of Indigenous students.


...language background
Although school students who speak a language other than English at home may be highly literate in their first language, literacy and numeracy tests conducted in English may disadvantage them. For this reason, school students with language backgrounds other than English, including students who speak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, have been identified as a group for whom literacy and numeracy outcomes could be improved.2

In the 2000 national benchmark study, there was little difference between Year 3 students from a language background other than English and all Year 3 students. Around 91% of students from a language background other than English reached the reading benchmark and 90% reached the numeracy benchmark. This compares with 93% for all students for both the reading and numeracy benchmarks.

In contrast, Australian results from the Programme for International Student Assessment for 15 year olds indicate generally lower performance for students who speak languages other than English at home when compared with students who speak English at home. The difference was greatest for scientific literacy, where the average score for students who mostly or only spoke English at home was 534, compared with 497 for students who mostly spoke languages other than English at home.

This test focused on students' ability to work through real-life problems and scenarios, rather than simply assessing knowledge, and thus all three literacy domains required some proficiency with English.1 However, items in the mathematical domain were the least verbally complex. This is consistent with the fact that students who spoke languages other than English most of the time at home generally scored higher in mathematical literacy than in reading and scientific literacy.

Another way to consider performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment is to compare the distributions of reading literacy scores according to levels of proficiency for various groups of students. For example, around 6% of students who spoke languages other than English at home most of the time scored less than 335 in reading literacy, compared with 3% of all students.

SELECTED CHARACTERISTICS OF AUSTRALIAN 15 YEAR OLD STUDENTS AND THEIR SCORES IN READING, MATHEMATICAL AND SCIENTIFIC LITERACY - 2000

Source: Lokan, J., Greenwood, L. and Cresswell, J., How Literate are Australia's Students? 2001.


...Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
Literacy and numeracy levels for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are generally lower than those for other Australian students. Education is one area that may be pivotal to improving Indigenous health, employment and socioeconomic outcomes (see Australian Social Trends 2002, Education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples). This has been recognised with the launching of the National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, which states that by 2004, Indigenous outcomes should match non-Indigenous outcomes in literacy and numeracy.3

In the 2000 national reading and numeracy benchmark studies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Year 3 students were more likely to have reached the reading than the numeracy benchmark, but proportions for each benchmark were well below those for all students. Around 77% of Indigenous students reached the reading benchmark and 74% reached the numeracy benchmark.

In Australian results from the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2000, Indigenous 15 year old students scored on average about 80 points lower than all 15 year old students in all three of the reading, mathematical and scientific literacy domains. When the distribution of reading literacy scores across proficiency levels was considered, the scores of Indigenous students were more concentrated in the lower end of the distribution than the scores of all students. Around 35% of Indigenous students scored less than 408 in reading literacy, compared with 12% of all students. The lower performance of Indigenous students is likely to be associated with a range of factors linked to disadvantage, such as generally low levels of socioeconomic status and low levels of proficiency in written and spoken English.4

DISTRIBUTION OF SCORES OF AUSTRALIAN 15 YEAR OLD STUDENTS BY PROFICIENCY LEVELS IN READING LITERACY - 2000

Proficiency level(a)

Less than 335
335-407
408-480
481-552
553-625
626 and over
Total
Selected characteristics
%
%
%
%
%
%
%

Male
5
11
21
26
23
14
100
Female
2
7
17
25
28
22
100
Mostly speak languages other than English at home
6
12
23
26
20
13
100
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
11
24
25
25
*7
*8
100
All students
3
9
19
26
25
18
100

(a) Cut-offs for each level of proficiency were determined so that there were approximately equal differences between the skills associated with each level.

Source: Lokan, J., Greenwood, L. and Cresswell, J., How Literate are Australia's Students? 2001.


...other factors
Performance in literacy and numeracy is additionally related to the home and school environments of students, as well as their individual characteristics. Analysis of the results from the Programme for International Student Assessment suggests that socioeconomic status was a major predictor of achievement.1 For example, in 2000, students in the lowest quartile of the socioeconomic index devised by the OECD scored about 90 points less in reading literacy than students in the highest quartile.

Other home environment characteristics associated with literacy and numeracy include levels of social communication with parents, and family wealth. For both of these characteristics, there were differences in reading literacy of about 40 points between students in the lowest quartile and those in the highest quartile.


INTERNATIONAL COMPARISON
Australian 15 year old students perform well in literacy and numeracy when compared with other OECD countries. Students in Japan scored notably higher than Australian students in mathematical literacy, while students in both Japan and the Republic of Korea scored notably higher in scientific literacy. Students from the United States of America scored lower than Australian students in all three domains.

Literacy domain

Reading
Mathematical
Scientific
Selected OECD country
average score
average score
average score

Australia
528
533
528
Canada
534
533
529
Japan
522
557
550
Korea (Republic of)
525
547
552
New Zealand
529
537
528
USA
504
493
499
OECD average
500
500
500

Source: Lokan, J., Greenwood, L. and Cresswell, J., How Literate are Australia's Students? 2001.


School factors can also play a key role in literacy and numeracy achievement, as they give students the environment and support required for learning. In the Programme for International Student Assessment, students who rated the disciplinary climate of schools most highly, stating that the teacher was effective in maintaining order and behavioural control, scored better on average in reading literacy than students who rated it the lowest (553 compared with 506). The quality of schools' educational resources was also associated with performance in reading literacy. Students whose principals rated the quality of their schools' educational resources the highest scored on average 542 in reading literacy, compared with students whose principals rated it the lowest, who scored
515 on average.

Attitudes to reading and confidence in their own ability also tend to be associated with students' learning outcomes. In the index of interest in reading devised by the Programme for International Student Assessment, students in the highest quartile scored nearly 100 points higher than students in the lowest quartile (588 compared with 495). Similarly, there were differences between students who rated their self-concept in reading (that is, their confidence in their ability in English classes) the highest (572) and those who rated it the lowest (499).

Factors such as socioeconomic status, disciplinary climate at school and interest in reading are intertwined with characteristics such as sex, language background and cultural background. In many cases, they work together to affect students' self esteem, motivation and interest in reading and learning.1

READING LITERACY ACHIEVEMENT OF AUSTRALIAN 15 YEAR OLDS AND INDEXES OF HOME, SCHOOL AND INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERISTICS - 2000

Average score of students in quartiles of each index

Lowest
Highest
Index(a)
average score
average score

Home
    Socioeconomic status (based on parents' labour force status and occupation)
490
576
    Social communication with parents (based on type and frequency of communication with parents)
502
545
    Family wealth (based on type and quantity of possessions in the home)
510
544
School
    Quality of school's educational resources (based on type and quantity of different educational resources)(b)
515
542
    Disciplinary climate (based on perceptions of effective behavioural control and maintaining order in class)
506
553
Individual
    Interest in reading (based on enjoyment of time spent reading)
495
588
    Self-concept in reading (based on beliefs about own aptitude in English classes)
499
572

(a) Indexes for each characteristic were devised by the OECD and are based on students' responses to questions pertaining to each index. Students were ranked on each index such that the higher the ranking on the index, the greater the existence of that characteristic. For further information, see OECD 2001, Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000, OECD, Paris.
(b) Based on principals' responses.

Source: OECD, Knowledge and Skills for Life: First Results from PISA 2000.


Endnotes
1 Lokan, J., Greenwood, L. and Cresswell, J. 2001, How Literate are Australia's Students? Australian Council for Educational Research, Melbourne.

2 Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) 1999, National Report on Schooling in Australia: 1999, MCEETYA, Melbourne.

3 Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) 2000, The National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy <URL: http://www.detya.gov.au/schools/publications/LNS_March2000.pdf> accessed 15 January 2002.

4 Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) 2000, Report of MCEETYA Taskforce on Indigenous Education <URL: http://www.curriculum.edu.au/ mctyapdf/reportm.pdf> accessed 15 March 2002.



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