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Queensland Smart State? More like Vacuum State!

By John Ridd - posted Monday, 9 February 2009

At the start of the century Anna Bligh was the Queensland Minister for Education. There were slightly encouraging signs that she recognised that the educational standards in the States’ schools were unsatisfactory. However the emphasis was on the easily measured and simplistic issue: the retention rate into Year 12. Sadly nothing was done then, or since, to rectify the problem of poor standards. Subsequent Ministers of Education never showed any real signs whatsoever that they realised how bad the situation was. Even less was there any recognition that the root of the problem lay with the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA) who determined the subject syllabi for all subjects for all schools and for all Years.

Now, in the last few months, Ms Bligh, now the Premier, has had the unpleasant experience of seeing two major studies/tests that demonstrate beyond argument that the situation is grave. The Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) showed, yet again, that the condition of mathematics in Australia is weak. For example in Year 8 algebra, variously described in the literature as “the language of higher mathematics” and “a gatekeeper to educational opportunity”, the global average is 500, Australian children scrambled 471.

It is not just that our children are beaten by the “big boys” such as Taipei, Japan, Singapore and Korea, who are so far ahead as to be in a different league altogether, but also by (as a sample), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, England, Hungary, Lithuania and Malta. I stopped halfway down the alphabetical list.


Taking mathematics as a whole, the performance of our more gifted children is embarrassingly feeble: 45 per cent of Year 8 Taipei students reached the “advanced” benchmark. In Australia it was 6 per cent. In the Queensland, the Vacuum State, it was 3 per cent.

The embarrassment of the TIMSS data has been compounded by the results of the National Assessment Programme (NAPLAN). This measured student achievements in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. When the mean scores by the Vacuum Staters are compared with the five other States and the ACT, we find Queensland in sixth or seventh place virtually all the time. Overall Queensland’s students are the weakest of the seven.

The tests also placed the students into Bands of Achievement; the highest band in Year 9 was Band 10. Over the nation as a whole a weak 8 per cent achieved Band 10. For Queensland it was a pathetic 4 per cent. Note the unpleasant similarity between the feeble performance of the more gifted children on the NAPLAN tests and the weak performance of those children in the TIMSS tests. They effectively say the same thing - situation very poor.

These two reliable data sets are no surprise to me at all. Well over four years ago On Line Opinion printed “Wadderloader! Maths and Science teaching in Australia”. In that I raised these issues quite clearly. What has become even more obvious since then is the severe underperformance of (say) the more gifted third of the student body. Some of the inevitable consequences of poor performance in mathematics in lower secondary school are poor enrolments and declining standards in rigorous maths in Years 11/12, weakness in the numerical sciences in all educational stages, and enrolment difficulties for engineering at tertiary level.

It is, I think, a fair question to ask: how bad does an education system have to get, how far down do we have to degrade our more gifted children, how many more tens of thousands of our children have to have their future prospects irrevocably damaged before we recognise that what we have here is systematic, government sponsored, child abuse?

T’was not always thus. Queensland used to be the best. In my article “Strong on the critical and weak in the thinking” that point is well made by, among many others, the Principal of St Augustine’s College in Cairns, when he remarked that “Queensland used to lead the Commonwealth in lower and middle years but is now selling young people short”. He correctly identifies the cause of the decline - feeble syllabi produced by QSA.


In another On Line Opinion article “Floating gently on a waft of edudribble” I demonstrated beyond any doubt that the assessment systems in Queensland used to lead the country but “have now degenerated into a floppy and unreliable mess”. Those assessment systems are a part of the QSA subject syllabi, so the fault again lies with that all-powerful body.

So what is to be done to reduce the damage being done to our children? It has frequently been suggested (predominantly but not exclusively from the Right) that competition and choice would produce improvement. See, for example a recent On Line Opinion article by Scott Prasser “Education must be about freedom of choice”.

That is an attractive idea to some people, but it fails totally for two reasons. First, the authoritative Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth (LSAYR 22) from ACER showed that school type has only a very low correlation with final Tertiary Entrance Score (OP in Queensland). By far the greatest influence is literacy and numeracy at Year 9 level (numeracy more than literacy). So choosing a school on the grounds that it is “public” or “independent” or “religious” makes little or no logical sense.

Individual schools do produce a slight effect - but that leads to the second and crushing problem: no parent has, or can have any really hard, relevant data on which to make a decision as to which school to send their child. That is not due to some sort of furtive secretive behaviour in which good relevant data is hidden from public gaze - the data does not exist. Please see “Choosing a school in a knowledge vacuum” which deals with this issue in greater detail. Until and unless there is good reliable data that shows “value added” by each child, any talk about “choice” is in vain.

The Queensland Coalition is putting emphasis on the subject syllabi that may emerge from the National Curriculum that is being considered at present. It is possible that something of value may arise, but there is a real fear that it will emphasise the minimum requirements and hence do little to improve the current terrible underperformance by the more talented third of the students. Also, to judge from the outcomes of discussions towards a National Certificate a few years ago, each State would keep its own assessment system. That would leave the assessment problem untouched. The Coalition also aims to improve the physical conditions in the schools. Laudable as that is it will do nothing at all unless the subject syllabi are massively improved.

It is important to note that the NAPLAN figures show boys doing as well as girls in maths. That raises the issue of poor male performance notably at the end of schooling, i.e. the tertiary Entrance score (OP) outcomes. As stated in “Education Revolution - radical change or chucking a 360?”, the constant unbroken stream of “assignments” in Queensland, which inevitably are of dubious provenance, discriminate against lower socio economic groups and also boys. In part at least that is the cause of poor male performance.

Another matter that adversely affects males and lower socio economic groups is that, as remarked in research some years ago in South Australia: “the level of nomenclature and sophisticated verbal reasoning skills that are required - to even understand what the problem is - is on average four times greater (in maths) than what is required in Australian history and English literature.”

That problem was recognised by the House of Representatives Parliamentary Inquiry Boys getting it right. They made the recommendation “Assessment procedures for maths and sciences must, as a first requirement, provide information about students’ knowledge, skills and achievement on the subject, and not be a de facto examination of students’ English comprehension and expression.”

Of course the education establishment ignored that recommendation - because only the State parliaments have ultimate power over them. To put it crudely, the Boards such as QSA can and do give the Commonwealth parliament “the finger”. So that leaves only State parliament with the power over them if they wish to use it.

Another NAPLAN matter that is of interest is the fact that for each test and for each “Achievement Band” there is a concise and adequate description of what is expected both in content and skill. The difference between the NAPLAN clarity and conciseness and the extraordinary waffle that is any QSA subject syllabus is vast. A QSA syllabus takes, I suppose, about 50 pages to say less than NAPLAN descriptors say in 100 words or so. A syllabus and its associated assessment system must be “defined, reliable and valid”. QSA syllabi are none of those.

The horrible fact is that the feeble condition of education in Queensland is primarily caused by the QSA. It is they that I described as the worst of the “four horsemen of the educational apocalypse” in Wadderloader! referred to earlier.

The power of the QSA is almost absolute, in that they control what is taught and how assessment is to take place in every school in the State. So who or what can rectify the problem? There is one and only one thing that can do anything - Parliament.

Parliament set up the QSA and Parliament trusted QSA to do the right thing by our children. It must now be clear to everybody (apart from QSA and their tertiary education faculty backers), that they have betrayed that trust. Parliament must step in, and their first step should be a full, open and rigorous Parliamentary Inquiry into education in the State.

It is with that objective that I am the Principal Petitioner of a Queensland Parliament E-Petition. In part it says:

… therefore request the House to initiate forthwith an Inquiry into school education in Queensland. That inquiry to include, but not be restricted to: an examination of QSA subject syllabi and their associated assessment structures especially at secondary level to ascertain whether they ensure and guarantee a high level of rigour in all schools across the State, to consider to what extent the overwhelming use of assignments which have dubious provenance can be reliable and fair notably to students from lower socio economic backgrounds or to males. The inquiry should also consider whether assessment systems and methods used to determine a student’s Level of Achievement can, in the absence of any indication of the value of a piece of assessment, be comprehended by students, parents, the public or the parliamentarians themselves. The inquiry also should consider whether internal school organisational arrangements provide adequate challenge to gifted students.

You can find it here.

Any Queensland resident who has concerns about the condition of education in the State will I hope, click and sign the petition. If you do not, then, corny as it sounds, yours silence will be taken as acquiescence.

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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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