Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Student Background Has a Strong Influence on Achievement

Wednesday December 19, 2012

The latest results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show a strong connection between socio-economic status (SES) and student achievement in Australia. They show a strong connection between parent education background and student results, between home educational resources and student results and between the socio-economic composition of schools and school results.

The results contradict claims by defenders of government funding for elite private schools that socio-economic background has a minor effect on student achievement.

Parent education background and student results
Students who have at least one parent with a university degree had an average mathematics score a substantial 132 points higher than that of students whose parents did not complete secondary school. This achievement gap was nearly double the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and the same as the gap between Indigenous students and students whose parents have completed a university degree.

The average score of students whose parents did not complete secondary school was almost identical to that of Indigenous students (438 and 437 respectively).

There was a significant decrease in the average score of students whose parents did not complete secondary school between 2007 and 2011, from 472 to 437. The average score of students of parents who completed a university degree increased from 546 to 569. As a result, the achievement gap between the two groups almost doubled from 74 to 132 points.

There was a huge contrast in the proportions of students from different family education backgrounds at different achievement levels. More than one quarter (27%) of students who had at least one parent complete a university degree reached the advanced benchmark compared to only 2% of students of parents who did not complete secondary school. In contrast, a massive 71% of students of parents who did not complete secondary school were at or below the low international benchmark, but only 14% of students of a parent who had a university degree were at or below the low benchmark. There was a large increase in the proportion of students of parents who did not complete secondary school at or below the low benchmark from 51% to 71% between 2007 and 2011.

A similar pattern is apparent in the science results.

Students who have at least one parent with a university degree had an average science score that was 134 points higher than that of students whose parents did not complete secondary school. This achievement gap was double that of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and higher than the gap between Indigenous students and students whose parents have completed a university degree.

The average score of students whose parents did not complete secondary school was statistically similar to that of Indigenous students (446 and 459 respectively).

There was a significant decrease in the average score of students whose parents did not complete secondary school between 2007 and 2011, from 487 to 446. The achievement gap between these students and those of parents who had a university degree increased from 82 to 134 points.

There was also a huge contrast in the proportions of students from different family education backgrounds at different achievement levels in science. Nearly one-third (29%) of students who had at least one parent complete a university degree reached the advanced benchmark compared to only 3% of students of parents who did not complete secondary school. In contrast, a massive 64% of students of parents who did not complete secondary school were at or below the low international benchmark, while only 10% of students of a parent who had a university degree were at or below the low benchmark. There was a large increase in the proportion of students of parents who did not complete secondary school at or below the low benchmark from 40% to 64% between 2007 and 2011.

Home educational resources and student results
TIMSS constructed a home educational resources scale using students’ responses to questions about parents’ educational background, the number of books in the home, and home study supports which involve students having their own room and an internet connection at home. The responses were compiled according to whether students had “many”, “some” or “few” resources at home.

The results show a positive association between the level of home educational resources and students’ performance in mathematics and science, both internationally and within Australia. Students with many resources scored higher on average than students with some or few resources.

The average mathematics score of Year 8 students with many home resources was 558 compared to 430 for students with few home resources. This is a huge gap of 128 points. It was higher than the international average of 115 points.

The gap in science was even bigger. The average science score of students with many home resources was 577 compared to 433 for those with few resources – a gap of 144 points. It was much higher than the international average of 116 points.

Three-quarters of Australian students participating in TIMSS had some resources in the home and the average mathematics score of these students was 494 – 64 points lower than those with many resources in the home. The gap for science was 69 points.

Socio-economic composition of schools and school results
The TIMSS results also show that the socio-economic composition of schools had an impact on the performance of students, with students in schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students scoring higher in mathematics and science than students in schools with more disadvantaged than affluent students.

Among Australian students, there was a relationship between student performance on the TIMSS assessments of reading, mathematics and science and the type of population of the schools they attended. Students at schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students scored higher on average in reading, mathematics and science than students in schools with even proportions of affluent and disadvantaged students and students in schools with more disadvantaged than affluent students.

Just over 30% of Australian Year 4 students were attending schools that their principals described as having more students from affluent backgrounds than from disadvantaged backgrounds, while a further 40 per cent were in schools in which the ratios of students from affluent backgrounds and disadvantaged backgrounds were fairly even. Just over one-quarter of Year 4 students in Australia attended schools in which disadvantaged students outnumbered affluent students.

The average Year 4 score in reading in schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students was 556 compared to 500 in schools with more disadvantaged students than affluent students, a gap of 44 points. This was similar to the international average of 40 points.

The average Year 4 score in mathematics in schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students was 544 compared to 486 in schools with more disadvantaged students than affluent students, a gap of 58 points. This was significantly higher than the international average of 38 points.

The average Year 4 score in science in schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students was 542 compared to 486 in schools with more disadvantaged students than affluent students, a gap of 56 points. This was significantly higher than the international average of 42 points.

Students in schools with equal proportions of affluent and disadvantaged students also outperformed students in schools with more disadvantaged than affluent students in reading, mathematics and science.

About one-third of Australian Year 8 students were attending schools that their principals described as having more students from affluent backgrounds than from disadvantaged backgrounds, while nearly 40% were in schools in which the ratios of students from affluent backgrounds and disadvantaged backgrounds were fairly even. Just under 30% of Year 8 students in Australia attended schools in which disadvantaged students outnumbered affluent students.

The average Year 8 score in mathematics in schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students was 543 compared to 476 in schools with more disadvantaged students than affluent students, a gap of 67 points. This was higher than the average international gap of 54 points.

The average Year 8 score in science in schools with more affluent than disadvantaged students was 553 compared to 493 in schools with more disadvantaged students than affluent students, a gap of 64 points. This was similar to the average international gap of 57 points.

Students in schools with equal proportions of affluent and disadvantaged students also outperformed students in schools with more disadvantaged than affluent students in mathematics and science.

Results contradict claims of a weak SES effect
Representatives of the richest schools in Australia defend receipt of millions of dollars in government funding by claiming that socio-economic background has little effect on student achievement, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, Independent Schools Victoria, representing the richest schools in Victoria, said in its submission to the Gonksi review of school funding that low SES students should not receive extra funding because the relationship between low SES and education outcomes is “weak” and “inconclusive”. It claims that “low SES has a minor influence on student performance”.

The evidence from the latest TIMSS results contradicts such extreme claims. The report on Australia’s Year 8 results notes that “higher parental education is associated with higher average mathematics achievement” across almost all countries participating in the tests [p. ix]. Further:

TIMSS 2011, as in past cycles, found that there was a positive association between the level of Home Educational Resources and students’ performance in mathematics and science, both internationally and within Australia. Students with many resources scored higher on average than students with some or few resources. [p. 126]

This is also the conclusion of the international TIMSS report on the mathematics results:

Research consistently shows a strong positive relationship between achievement and socioeconomic status (SES), or indicators of socioeconomic status such as parents’ or caregivers’ level of education or occupation. TIMSS, PIRLS, and PISA have found strong positive relationships between level of parents’ education and/or occupation and their children’s educational attainment. In general, higher levels of education can lead to careers in higher paying professions, higher socioeconomic status, and more home resources. Family income also has been shown to have a powerful influence on students’ achievement in reading and mathematics. [p. 174]

The new results provide powerful support for the call by the Gonski report on school funding for a fairer funding system which directs vastly increased resources to disadvantaged schools and students.

Trevor Cobbold

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