Lessons from PISA

Some of the many challenges we face educating learners in maths and numeracy include how we can encourage them to see their world through mathematical lenses and to use their mathematical knowledge to deal with work and other life challenges.

Whether you are working, shopping, following medical instructions, making decisions about financial matters, or understanding the implications of something like, say, gambling, good numeracy skills are required in order to make informed decisions.

The results of Australia’s mathematical literacy and numeracy performance in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released late in 2013. The assessment, which focused on the competencies of 15-year-old students in close to 70 countries, made major headlines across Australia, with the results showing:

  • Australian student performance in mathematics has declined in absolute terms compared with PISA 2003;
  • Australian students have slipped relative to other countries;
  • More Australian students are performing at the lowest levels, fewer performing at the highest levels; and
  • There is a wider gap for girls, and for Indigenous students.

The results in maths show that 44 per cent of the students tested do not meet the baseline identified in ACARA’s Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia 2012 (2013); which outlines a ‘challenging but reasonable expectation of student achievement at a year level, with students needing to demonstrate more than the elementary skills expected at this level.’

As someone who knows all of the maths questions asked in the survey, the results, no matter how you read them, demonstrate unequivocally that a significant number of 15-year-old Australians do not have access to sufficient numeracy and mathematical skills to be able to cope equitably with life in the 21st Century and are, potentially, disempowered.

Research based on related international adult surveys like the Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) demonstrates that, for the vast majority of adults, low levels of literacy and numeracy have a negative impact on their social and economic future.

Lynn A. Steen, probably the most articulate spokesperson for 'Quantitative Literacy', states that ‘... numeracy is not the same as mathematics, nor is it an alternative to mathematics. Today's students need both mathematics and numeracy. Whereas mathematics asks students to rise above context, quantitative literacy is anchored in real data that reflect engagement with life's diverse contexts and situations.’

So, what will it take to increase our students’ experience grappling with real-world situations and problems involving mathematics?

Further articles in Teacher will continue this discussion, with more reflections and lessons from these international assessments and the implications for the teaching and learning of both mathematics and numeracy.


Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2013). Measurement Framework for Schooling in Australia. Retrieved June 19 2014 from http://www.acara.edu.au/verve/_resources/Measurement_Framework_for_Schooling_in_Australia_2012.pdf (PDF, 265KB)