State Differences in Achievement among Secondary School Students in Australia

By Marks, Gary N.; Cresswell, John | Australian Journal of Education, August 2005 | Go to article overview
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State Differences in Achievement among Secondary School Students in Australia

Marks, Gary N., Cresswell, John, Australian Journal of Education

A number of recent national studies of student achievement in secondary school have reported differences between the Australian states and territories. State differences are often viewed as insubstantial or as simply reflecting sociodemographic factors, or differences between the states in the grades or ages of the students sampled. In this article, we show that state differences are larger than generally assumed and cannot be attributed to socioeconomic and demographic factors. Generally, student achievement in reading, mathematics and science are higher in New South Wales than the other states, once demographic and grade differences are taken into account. Of concern, is the increased likelihood that students from Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania have in only reaching the lowest OECD proficiency level in reading. We conclude that state differences are meaningful and do have policy implications.


The division of Australia into states and territories (hereafter, referred to as states) is one of the most important aspects of the Australian school system. Constitutionally, the states have jurisdiction over education and a large proportion of their budgets is allocated to schools. Each state has its own curriculum, standards, and certificates. With few exceptions, each school in a state or territory is subject to the standards and organisation of that state, usually, regardless of school sector. This difference in the organisation of education between the states may have implications for student outcomes.

Differences in student outcomes between states have long been a contentious issue. State governments of all political persuasions have been reluctant to allow comparisons between states since state differences in student outcomes may be attributed to the quality of teaching, the level of funding or the organisation of the education system. State governments and state education systems raise a number of plausible reasons why comparisons between states can be misleading. States differ in: when a child is allowed to start school, the presence of a preparatory year before first grade, the number of years of secondary school, the senior secondary school curriculum, and the proportion of students who reach Year 12 and compete for university entrance. Also the states differ in the proportion of rural and Indigenous students and the students' socioeconomic backgrounds (1). These considerations complicate comparisons between the states and undermine conclusions on whether particular states deliver better or worse educational outcomes for their students. It is unfortunate that comparing states is so difficult because it is one area where educational policies can be evaluated; states could share information that may lead to better outcomes for all students.

Previous research

Although there are problems in making comparisons, state differences in achievement among secondary school students appear quite large. In 1964, the mean mathematics score of Queensland students in the First International Mathematics Study was about 0.4 of a standard deviation higher than that for students in Victoria and New South Wales, and the mean performance of Western Australian and Tasmanian students was lower still.

In the 1978 Second International Mathematics Study, the mean mathematics scores of students from the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland were higher than that for the other states. The relative performance of the states had changed since 1964 (Afrassa & Keeves, 1999; Masters, 2003).

In 1983, seven percentage points separated the average scores of students in word knowledge across the states and territories from 68 in the Australia Capital Territory (ACT) to 61 in Victoria. In mathematics, the ACT and Queensland showed the highest scores (73 and 70), and Victoria and the Northern Territory the lowest scores (64 and 62).These differences compare to the one or two percentage point difference between male and female students (Rosier & Banks, 1990, p.

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