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Through measurement to knowledge

By John Ridd - posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Nobel Prize winning Dutch physicist Kamerlingh Onnes used the phrase ‘through measurement to knowledge’. This article will present hard data, measurements, to show that the condition of maths and science in Australia, in particular in Queensland, is very poor; and, aware of the impending State election calls on politicians of all persuasions to take drastic action to rectify matters.

Much of the basic data will be drawn from Trends in International Maths and Science Study TIMSS (or analyses thereof) which is an international sequence of tests held every four years. They test the various ‘domains’ (eduspeak for areas of work).  For example, for Year 8/9 maths they test Number, Algebra, Geometry, data and chance in the ‘Content domain’ and Knowing, Applying and Reasoning in the ‘Cognitive domain’.  The number of countries is substantial. In 2007, the most recent test for which data is available, 36 countries took the Year 4 tests and 49 took the Year8.

 The relative condition of Australian maths/science shown in the 2007 results is summarised below by showing the average from (a) the highest scoring country, (b) US, (c) England and (d) Australia. For each of US, England and Australia the country’s rank order is also given. In both subjects and both grades case the TIMSS average overall was 500.



Maths 4th grade                      

Maths 8th grade 

Science 4th grade

Science 8th grade

Hong Kong 607

Taiwan 598

Singapore 587

Singapore 567

US 529

US 508

US 539

US 520

UK 541

UK 513

UK 542

UK 542

Australia 516

Australia 496

Australia 527

Australia 515


The TIMSS data also enables trends over time to be assessed.  For mathematics the bedrock for subsequent mathematics, numerical sciences and engineering, the changes from 1995 to 2007 were:

Grade 4: US increase11 points, England increase 57 points, Australia increase 22 points

Grade 8: US increase 17points, England increase 16 points, Australia decrease 13 points


All of the increases or decreases were statistically significant.

The TIMSS tests also place student results in categories according to how well they have performed.  Each student is placed into one of the categories ‘Advanced’, (reached the) ‘High Benchmark’, ‘Intermediate Benchmark’, ‘Low Benchmark’ or, for the very poorest achievers ‘Not at low benchmark’. Below are the results for Grade 4 and Grade 8 students for both maths and science across Australia and, for comparison purposes, for the highest scoring country and the international median.

Tables below show the maths results for Years 4 and 8.

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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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