Here’s a headline I never expected to see: “Saudia Arabia outperforms Australia in Girls’ Education”.

Actually I’m still waiting because, as far as I can tell, the Australian media chose to completely ignore the recently released Trends in International Maths and Science Studies (TIMSS) comparison of maths and science around the world, including some remarkable information that would (partially) justify that quote.

TIMSS is a very useful project. It compares thousands of Year 4 and Year 8 students from almost 50 countries (although some only take part at the older level). For those worried about the state of maths and science education in this country it offers glasses half full and half empty. Australia did above average in both disciplines at Year 4, and in science at Year 8, but our scores are in long term decline relative to the rest of the world, and in some cases absolute decline as well.

In Maths we’re up at Grade 4 compared to four years earlier, but at Grade 8 level there’s a long term decline. In Science our absolute scores are stable, but the rest of the world has generally improved, so we’re slipping back relatively. There’s a predictably depressing score for Indigenous students across the board.

Fewer and fewer students are choosing to study maths and science at higher levels in schools and at university. The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) took the opportunity to repeat their oft-ignored warning that if we don’t reverse this soon we won’t have the teachers to do it in the future. They note that already primary school teachers are expressing a lack of confidence in their capacity to teach science as a result of insufficient training.

But perhaps the most surprising bit of news is that Australian year 8 girls perform worse than boys in both fields, while internationally the reverse is the case. ACER mentioned this in their media release announcing the release of the 2007 TIMSS report, but the MSM seems to have ignored it.

When I spoke to ACER’s CEO Geoff Masters the surprise deepened. Columbia has the largest gap gender gap in favour of boys, followed by Ghana, Tunisia, El Salvador and Syria. Then us. But when Masters turned to the other side of the ledger things got seriously strange. The biggest lead for girls is in Oman. The Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia are up there as well. That’s right, the country where women can’t drive on public roads and make up just 5% of the workforce. It’s pretty much the same story for science, except our gender gap is larger than Syria’s.

It is fascinating to speculate why girls are doing well in some of the most misogynist nations on Earth. Perhaps only the brightest Saudi women make it to year 8. Perhaps Saudi girls see education as the only way out and take it more seriously than the boys. We should also note that my pseudo-tabloid heading is rather misleading. Saudi girls did fair bit worse than Australians – it’s just that male Aussies beat their Saudi counterparts by a lot more.

But we should be asking ourselves why we are almost the only developed nation in which there is a substantial gender gap for both disciplines at Year 8. Generally speaking it’s only the developing nations that have large gaps in either direction.

Our Year 8 gender gaps are about the same size as those between the best and worst performing states, 15 and 18 points on a scale where 500 is the average score.

Masters is not aware of any research on the reasons for this Australian specific variation, although he suspects it “correlates with motivation” in the subject areas. He’s called for reform of the maths and science curriculum between Year 4 and Year 8 to correct the gender gap.

The reports can be found here.

Peter Fray

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