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Friday 14 December 2012

International tests and multiculturalism with a sprinkle of evidence

Suzana Sukovic

In the wake of the latest international testing results (TIMSS, PIRLS) the Australian media is struggling to provide an explanation as to why Australian students are not rating very high in maths, science and reading. International tests like these are important and relevant because they are indicators of how we measure up with the rest of the world but, like any test, TIMSS and PIRLS should be taken with a big grain of salt. Even if they were the best measure of students’ achievement in tested areas, they don’t consider a number of factors such as creativity and innovation potential, which may influence individual and national achievement over a period of time. While keeping this in mind, I read the test reports with great interest looking for evidence to inform my professional practice. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is coming at the right time for our library as we are considering how to revamp reading programs for next year. However, this blog post is not about a thoughtful interpretation of test results. Quite the opposite – it is about first responses in the media and how first interpretations of test results are becoming a test of evidence-based practice in their own right.

The Other

Listening to recent discussions, it appears that multiculturalism has a lot to answer for when it comes to education. At an educational conference in Sydney, a keynote speaker said Finnish successes in educational testing are understandable considering that Finland isn’t a culturally diverse country and has a strong work ethic. This statement echoes similar claims by American and Australian educators posted on social media. The first media reports about the most recent TIMSS and PIRLS results continue in the same vein.  Media analysis includes scenes from classrooms full of non-Caucasian children followed by explanations that, unlike countries like Japan, Australia is a multicultural nation so its education can’t be measured in the same way (ABC 7.30 Report, 12 December).

Our sense of what the hierarchy is in the league of nations is shattered. It seems particularly difficult to accept that Australia is in the same category with some nations that don’t appear particularly appealing to Australian reporters. For example, “The Daily Telegraph” wrote on 13 December: “Two startling new global studies have revealed our students have slipped down the international learning ladder to perform on a par with Eastern European minnows Lithuania, Bulgaria and Poland”. “The Daily Telegraph” editorial on the same day pointed out that some countries emerging behind the “iron curtain” developed their education fast and are now on par with Australia: “Education standards have vastly improved across the former communist bloc, to the point where many Australian students are being matched or beaten by students from what were previously considered backwaters”.

A sprinkle of evidence

When we deal with international comparisons, it’s worth remembering that our self-evident truths may not hold once we cross the border. Let’s look at some evidence in reverse order! I haven’t sought any comparative test data from the cold war era but, believe it or not, a number of countries from the former Eastern bloc claim that their educational standards have slipped since they’ve started embracing Western values. As for “minnows” (let’s assume it referred to the size of mentioned countries), the population of Poland is larger than that of Australia.

More serious and more damaging are suggestions that multiculturalism or multiethnicity is to blame for Australia’s inadequate test results. The fact is that some multi-ethnical countries such as Canada and England achieved much better results than Australia. Canadian results are particularly relevant considering a number of similarities with Australia.

Another question concerns a relationship between ethnicity and test scores. The language spoken at home is presumably an important factor influencing test results. According to the report PIRLS 2011: Canada in context (p.39),  26 per cent of Canadian students didn’t speak the test language at home, which is similar to the international average. The number of Australian Year 4 students who didn’t speak the test language at home was actually smaller – 21 per cent (ACER's reports Australian Results TIMMS and PIRLS). Australian and Canadian reports both indicate that students who spoke the test language at home achieved higher reading results than those who didn’t, but the gap is smaller for Canadian students. Why this is the case isn’t clear, but answers may be counter-intuitive to many Australians. Research into bilingualism confirms the rule in language development “strong first language - strong every other language”. Canada’s reputation in supporting bilingualism may be the case in point.

The relationship between ethnicity and reading results is far from clear, particularly considering the significance of other factors such as socio-economic status, living in rural areas, quality of early childhood education and parents’ influence, to name some. In PISA test the first generation of Australian immigrants demonstrated significantly better digital reading literacy than both Australian-born and foreign-born students. Students from non-English speaking homes were represented more at the bottom of the scale. However, high achievers in reading were coming equally from English and non-English speaking homes (Preparing Australian students for the digital world, p. 32). Simplistic explanations won’t go far in clarifying the results. Like in other affluent countries, Australian immigrants are likely to be better educated than native-born citizens (Degrees of mobility, The Economist). Studies repeatedly show that immigrant parents highly value education and encourage children to obtain university degrees, a contributing factor to students’ academic achievement. More relevant in Australian society are questions about the details of complex influences rather than the sweeping statements we often hear in the media. At this early stage, explanations of the test results are saying more about our understanding of other cultures and the global scene on which we compete than fostering deeper understanding.


If it takes a whole village to raise a child, it certainly takes a whole country to educate one. Whatever the meaning of current results may be, I believe that young people in Australia have one significant advantage over many counterparts across the globe – their bad starts and missed chances can be reversed, they have more opportunities throughout their lives. Over the coming weeks and months, a thoughtful analysis may provide some pointers on how education, and the library and information sector can use international studies to inform its practice. A quick read assures me that librarians will find evidence in support of our position as key providers of opportunities for lifelong learning and intellectual growth. I believe that as a profession we are well positioned to look far beyond the national borders as well to make sure that historical and national memories are kept alive.

Thanks to Alycia Bailey and Katherine Rogerson for their comments about this blog post!
The photograph by Hannah Berekoven, student at St.Vincent's College, Potts Point.

This post also appears at the SVC's National Year of Reading blog.

Dr Suzana Sukovic is Head of the Learning Resource Centre, St.Vincent's College, Potts Point and Research Associate, the University of Sydney.

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