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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2005  
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Contents >> Education and training >> School students' mathematics and science literacy

Educational Attainment: School Students' Mathematics and Science Literacy

Australian students have high levels of mathematical and scientific literacy. In 2003, their average scores placed them among the top third of 41 countries.

Mathematical and scientific literacy is fundamental to the effective functioning of a knowledge-based society. Mathematics and science skills are part of a broader skill set that can assist young people in further education, participation in home and life activities and obtaining employment. Mathematics and science skills are important in enabling Australians to function effectively in a flexible, often technical, labour force that can respond to changing workplace demands.

One key goal of schooling is for students to be numerate and able to read, write and spell. (endnote 1) Higher achievers in literacy and numeracy in Year 9 are more likely to stay at school until Year 12, have a higher tertiary entrance performance and be employed and earning more when they leave school. (endnote 2)

However, literacy in areas such as science and information technology, as well as mathematics, is becoming more important for functioning in our technical world. Mathematics and science have been identified among the eight key learning areas for Australian school students. (endnote 1)

Concepts and data

This article will explore mathematical and scientific literacy for 15 year old school students using data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) surveys. In 2003, 12,600 15 year old Australian students from 321 government and non-government schools participated in the survey. The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) was responsible for conducting and disseminating the Australian results.

Mathematical literacy (also termed numeracy) is an individual's capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual's life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen. (endnote 3)

Scientific literacy is an individual's capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity. (endnote 3)

Proficiency levels for mathematical literacy represent assessed performance on groups of tasks of ascending difficulty, with level 6 as the highest level of proficiency and 'below level 1' the lowest. Levels 1 and below represent items with relatively low difficulty while levels 4 and above reflect items with moderate through to high difficulty.

Selected countries: PISA mean mathematics and science literacy scores(a)
Graph: Selected countries: PISA mean mathematics and science literacy scores(a)


Internationally, 15 year olds are nearing the end of compulsory secondary schooling.3 The mathematical and scientific literacy of 15 year olds is an indicator of how well equipped they are for future education, work and life.

In 2003, PISA results showed Australian 15 year olds performed well when compared with 41 OECD and other countries across both maths and science scores. Australia's mean scores of 524 in mathematical literacy and 525 in scientific literacy placed it above the OECD average of 500 for each skill area and in the top third of countries.

Four countries performed significantly better than Australia in mathematical literacy (Finland, Hong Kong-China, Korea and the Netherlands), while nine countries including Canada and New Zealand had similar scores. In science, three countries scored significantly higher than Australia while eight countries (also including New Zealand and Canada) had similar results. Australia performed significantly better than the remaining countries.

Most countries had some variation between their performance in 2000 and 2003. Australian students' average performance was similar in 2000 and 2003, but more countries outperformed Australia in 2003.


Over four in ten Australian students (43%) were capable of tackling items in mathematics with moderate difficulty through to items with relatively high difficulty (proficiency level 4 through to level 6). Only 14% were unable to do items with relatively low difficulty (level 1 or below). (endnote 3)

While Australian students attained a good overall result in 2003, achievement varied across students with different characteristics. Maths and science literacy is associated with a variety of social and demographic factors such as sex, socioeconomic status, family background, teacher characteristics and school setting.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

PISA was developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The first survey took place in 2000 and the second in 2003 with 41 countries taking part. It assesses the abilities of 15 year olds to apply knowledge and skills to real-life problems and situations.

PISA measures literacy in three domains: reading, scientific literacy and mathematical literacy. A scaling method assigns scores so that 500 is the OECD average in each domain. Students are also assessed in terms of proficiency levels for mathematical literacy.

Each cycle of PISA has a different focus with reading literacy the main focus in 2000 and mathematical literacy in 2003. The mathematics domain testing in 2000 measured two content areas (space and shape, and change and relationship), while 2003 covered these two areas plus two additional content areas (quantity and uncertainty). Science covered the same content areas in 2000 and 2003: explaining and predicting scientific phenomena, understanding scientific investigation and interpreting scientific evidence and conclusions. (endnote 4)

Mathematics and science mean scores(a) and proficiency levels - 2003
Graph: Mathematics and science mean scores(a) and proficiency levels — 2003

Research shows that overall, while many boys in Australian schools are doing well, boys are not achieving as well as girls across a range of educational and social measures. Boys are more likely to drop out of school early and less likely to go on to university than girls.5 However, recent research on school subject selection and subsequent study and work participation in Australia has found that males are still much more likely than females to be taking advanced mathematics and science at senior secondary school, and much more likely to move into mathematics and science- related courses in higher education. (endnote 3)

In 2003, there were no significant sex differences in scores for Australian 15 year olds, with boys' mathematical literacy (mean score of 527) similar to that of girls' (522). Overall, more boys (45%) than girls (42%) achieved the higher levels of proficiency (levels 4, 5 and 6.3). Australian male and female students had the same average score of 525 for scientific literacy.

...states and territories

There are differences in school starting ages between Australian states and territories, which makes it difficult to compare aspects of education. The bulk of students tested were in Year 10 for all the states with the exception of Western Australia where more than half were in Year 11. (endnote 3)

In all states and territories, Australian 15 year old students performed on average at least as well as the average performance of students across all OECD countries in the study. Students in the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia scored the highest within Australia, on average, in mathematical and scientific literacy. Over half of their students performed at or above the top three proficiency levels in mathematical literacy. (endnote 3) The average scores of the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia were similar to the highest performing countries for mathematics and science. (endnote 3)



OECD average

(a) Of 15 year old school students in Australia as assessed by PISA.

Source: Thomson, S et al 2004, Facing the Future: A focus on mathematical literacy among Australian 15 year old students in PISA 2003.

Indigenous and non-Indigenous mathematics proficiency levels(a) - 2003
Graph: Indigenous and non-Indigenous mathematics proficiency levels(a) — 2003

...geographic location

Students attending schools in rural and remote areas experience educational disadvantage in a variety of ways. In remote areas, some of the major issues are recruiting and retaining teachers, barriers to accessing educational services and issues surrounding the access to, costs and use of information and communications technology. (endnote 6)

In 2003, metropolitan students had higher mean scores in both mathematical and scientific literacy (528 and 529) compared with provincial or rural (515 and 516) and remote areas (493 and 489).(endnote 3) These geographic locations have been coded using the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA) Schools Geographic Location Classification.

Australian National Benchmarks

In 1997, all State, Territory and Commonwealth Education Ministers agreed on a national goal which stated that every child leaving primary school should be numerate and be able to read, write, and spell at an appropriate level. This led to the implementation of the National Literacy and Numeracy Plan, the essential features of which are: early assessment and intervention for students at risk of not achieving minimum numeracy and literacy goals; development of national benchmarks for each of Years 3, 5 and 7; and assessment of student progress against these benchmarks. The benchmarks describe nationally agreed minimum acceptable standards for aspects of literacy and numeracy at particular year levels.

In 2001, 94% of year 3 students achieved the numeracy benchmark compared with 90% for the Year 5's. (Data for Year 7 students are expected in mid 2005.)

Source: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, National Report on Schooling in Australia 2001.

...Indigenous students

The National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy was launched in 2000 with the objective to achieve literacy and numeracy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at levels comparable to those achieved by other young Australians.7 The 2003 PISA results for Indigenous students were consistently lower than for non-Indigenous students. Indigenous students had a mean mathematics literacy score of 440 and science score of 434, compared with non-Indigenous students scores of 526 and 527 respectively. (endnote 3)

For mathematical literacy, there was an over- representation of Indigenous students at the lowest proficiency levels (1 and below - 43%) compared with all students in Australia (14%) and the OECD average of 21%. However, 13% of Indigenous students were performing at the higher levels (levels 4-6). (endnote 3)

Schools and teachers

The school setting and characteristics of teachers are factors that can influence student performance. The Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 2002-03) included questionnaires to teachers and school principals covering qualifications and training, factors limiting instruction, and school contexts for learning.

Overall, Australian mathematics and science teachers of Year 8 students had relevant qualifications. The majority of Australian mathematics and science teachers had the relevant discipline as their main area of study (70% of mathematics teachers and 90% of science teachers).

Regarding factors limiting instruction, teachers in Northern Territory and Western Australia were most likely to state that disruptive students had some impact on learning mathematics (95% and 58% respectively). The ACT (18%) was the state with the lowest reporting of disruption.

In 2002-03, for Year 8 students, 1% of principals in Australian schools reported that shortages of resources affected mathematics instruction to a great extent, down from 6% in 1994-95. This was much lower than the international averages of 11% and 10% respectively.

Source: Thomson, S and Fleming, N 2004, Summing it up: Mathematics achievement in Australian schools in TIMSS 2002 (TIMSS Australia Monograph no 6) and Examining the evidence: Science achievement in Australian schools in TIMSS 2002 (TIMSS Australia Monograph no 7), Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell.


The home environment has an influence on the reading literacy and numeracy outcomes for students. (See Australian Social Trends 2002, Literacy and numeracy among school students). Further analysis of the PISA results for 15 year old students in Australia has shown a moderately positive relationship between the mathematical literacy performance of 15 year old students and home environment factors such as parental education, the number of books in the home, computer resources, access to educational software and cultural possessions in the home, such as books of poetry and works of art. (endnote 3)

Books are an important educational resource. The number of books in the home were found to be related to student performance in PISA 2003. On average a student whose home had between 201-500 books scored 76 points higher in mathematical literacy and 89 points higher in scientific literacy than a student who had 11-25 books in their home. (endnote 3)

The OECD developed a socioeconomic index based on the types of factors discussed above. In 2003, Australian students in the lowest quartile of the socioeconomic index (signifying the highest degree of disadvantage) scored about 79 points less in mathematical literacy than students in the highest quartile (signifying the lowest degree of disadvantage). Overall, socioeconomic status had less of an impact on mathematics performance in Australia than across other OECD countries on average. (endnote 3)

In 2003, Australian students who spoke English at home had higher average scores for both mathematical and scientific literacy (scores of 529 in each domain) than those who spoke a language other than English at home (505 and 509 respectively). (endnote 3)


Mathematics and science skills acquired at secondary level enable some students to attend university. Students with a mathematics and science background in Year 12 were more likely to enter higher education than other Year 12 students. (endnote 8)

In 2004, almost all people (94%) who were studying in the natural and physical sciences field (e.g. mathematics, chemistry and biology) in a non-school environment were enrolled in a bachelor degree or above. There has been an increase in the number of people with a degree in the natural and physical sciences at this level, from 147,000 in 1994 to 205,000 in 2004. However, as a proportion of all people with a bachelor degree or above, these students declined from 11% to 8% over the period. (endnote 9) (endnote 10).


1 Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs 1999, The National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century, <>, accessed 16 May 2005.

2 Penman, R 2004, An easy reference guide to Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth research reports, 1996-2003, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell.

3 Thomson, S. et al 2004, Facing the Future: A focus on mathematical literacy among Australian 15 year old students in PISA 2003, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell.

4 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2004, Learning for Tomorrow's World; First Results from PISA 2003, OECD, Paris.

5 Boys' education <> accessed May 27 2005.

6 Department of Education, Science and Training 2003, National Evaluation of the Country Areas Program, 2002-03 <
sectors/school_education/publications_resources/profiles/national_evaluation_of_the_country_areas_program_2002_03.htm> accessed 14 June 2005.

7 Department of Education, Science and Training 2003, Final Report on the National Evaluation of National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy(NIELS), < education/publications_resources/profiles/final_report_nielns.htm> accessed June 14 2005.

8 Lamb, S and Ball, K 1999, Curriculum and careers: The education and labour market consequences of Year 12 subject choice, Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth Research Report no. 12, Australian Council for Educational Research, Camberwell.

9 Australian Bureau of Statistics 2004, Survey of Education and Work, cat. no. 6227.0, ABS, Canberra

10 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1994, Transitions from Education to Work, cat. no. 6227.0, ABS, Canberra.

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