NSW Labor leader Chris Minns
NSW Labor leader Chris Minns says education in NSW is "going backwards, not forward". (Damian Shaw/AAP IMAGES)

Minns omits key context in education outcomes claim

Kate Atkinson March 23, 2023

Education outcomes in NSW have been declining over the past decade according to an international assessment program.


Misleading. While they have been falling over the last decade, they were also falling in the previous decade under Labor.

NSW Opposition Leader Chris Minns has drawn attention to school standards in the state, claiming that educational outcomes have fallen under the coalition government.

Mr Minns, who is facing a state election on March 25, has used the international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings to make his point. 

He’s made the claim on several occasions dating back to at least September 2022, where he stated in a press release: “Education outcomes in NSW have been declining over the past decade, with NSW now ranked 23rd in reading, 31st in maths and 23rd in science compared to other countries in the PISA rankings. In 2006, NSW was effectively ranked 6th in reading, 9th in maths and 3rd in science.”

He also made the claim at the Channel 7 NSW leaders debate (7min 50sec). 

NSW Labor leader Chris Minns
 Mr Minns repeated the claim during a NSW leaders debate on March 8. 

Mr Minns is correct in that NSW’s PISA rankings – and scores – have fallen since the coalition took power in 2011. However, his claim is misleading as it is missing important context. Notably, the PISA rankings – and scores – were already falling under Labor.

Experts also raised issues with using the PISA scores and rankings to back up the claim. In particular that there would likely be a significant time lag between government action and resulting changes to the scores and rankings.

When contacted by AAP FactCheck, Mr Minns’ office confirmed the claim was based on comparing the 2006 scores (page 70, 166, 202) against 2018 (page 48, 128, 192) and setting NSW’s score against the results of other countries to determine the decline in world rankings.

PISA is an international assessment of student performance run by the OECD since 2000. It involves a two-hour test that is completed by 15-year-olds in various countries and economies. The test is held every three years but was postponed in 2021 due to the pandemic.

The questions test students’ applied knowledge across reading, maths and science. A representative sample of students from a number of schools take the test and their results are used to calculate a national mean score. In 2018, 14,273 students in Australia from 740 government, Catholic and independent schools took the test (page xiii).

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) also publishes a report breaking down the results across jurisdiction, socioeconomic background, and several other factors. The national reports for each test can be accessed here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Data from 2000 to 2018 shows that NSW results have been in decline since PISA began, including over 11 years when Labor was last in government.

For each PISA cycle, one of reading, maths and science is chosen as the focus, with a larger amount of the test devoted to that subject. 

Therefore, it is recommended that the most reliable way to establish subject trends is to compare results between cycles when the subject was the focus (page xxx).

For reading that was 2000, 2009 and 2018; for maths 2003 and 2012 and for science 2006 and 2015. 

The first cycle in which a subject is the focus is considered the best starting point for comparisons of that particular subject.

Reading was the focus of the first PISA test in 2000. NSW's reading score declined 23 points up until 2009 (the last test taken when Labor was in government). From 2012 to 2018 (under the coalition) reading declined a further 20 points. 

The state's score dropped three points between the 2009 and 2012 tests, a period in which first Labor and then the coalition were in power.

Maths was the focus for the first time in 2003. NSW's score declined 14 points between that year and 2009. 

It dropped 19 points under the coalition between 2012 and 2018, and by three points during the 2009-2012 change of government period.

Science was the focus for the first time in 2006. It declined by four points between 2006 and 2009. 

Under the coalition, the science score declined by 30 points between 2012 to 2018, and dropped by five points when both major parties were in power from 2009 to 2012.

Additionally, there was a 14-point drop in science from 2000 to 2003 and a three-point increase between 2000 and 2006, both under Labor. However, these trends were before the respective subjects had been a focus for the first time.

When asked for a response in relation to Mr Minns' excluding key context in the claim, a NSW Labor spokesperson said: "Results in NSW have collapsed over the past 12 years of the Liberals and Nationals.

"For reading, NSW dropped 45 points between tests in 2000 and 2018 - the equivalent of one and one-third of a year of schooling, the biggest decline of any Australian state. For mathematics, NSW dropped 38 points between 2003 and 2018 - the equivalent of a full year of mathematics tuition. For science, NSW dropped 39 points from 2006 and 2018 - more than a year of school and the largest decline of all the states."

Experts told AAP FactCheck there were several potential problems with drawing definitive conclusions about the impacts of the respective governments from the data.

Professor Therese Hopfenbeck, director of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education Assessment Research Centre, said delays in the impacts of education policy should be considered.

"We also need to be reminded that reforms often take time to implement," she said in an email. "So PISA results for PISA 2018, might reflect reforms happening in 2008 - 2015. In fact, reforms implemented in 2017 could potentially not have effect until now, and changes based upon PISA results, therefore need to be carefully considered by policy makers." 

Scott Eacott, a professor of education at UNSW, told AAP FactCheck that both Australia and NSW have been declining in PISA scores and ranking since the test's inception in 2000.

"This period (post-2000) represents an era of substantial, although often subtle, education reforms," he said.

"Changing in the funding mechanisms from the Commonwealth and the various exercising of jurisdictional sovereignty by states (and territories) around curriculum, accreditation, teacher education, have fundamentally shifted education."

He said there is no single cause for the decline, but pointed to major changes within the structure of the NSW Department of Education, impacts on instructional teaching time, and shifting workloads.

Experts also raised issues with using the scores to rank NSW internationally.

Research conducted by ACER found that Australian students do not invest as much effort in the test as they would if it counted towards their school marks.

Writing in the Conversation, University of Southern Queensland associate professor of education Stewart Riddle said "when averaged out, nearly half of the Australian students who sat the 2018 PISA test admitted they did not try their best". 

In contrast, students in China report very high levels of effort.

The number of countries participating in PISA has also increased, making ranking comparisons over time problematic.

Year 12 students sit for an exam


 NSW has been declining in PISA scores and rankings since its inception in 2000. 

In 2000 there were only 32 participants (page vi), increasing to 57 in 2006 (page 19). The 2018 test had 79 countries or economies (page 19), including regions within China and Singapore which now consistently rank among the top performers.

"Any change in rankings, depends upon which countries are compared," Professor Hopfenbeck said. 

"So, when reporting that Australia has declined, we must be precise and report whether we compare Australia's results in 2018 to the OECD countries originally participating in 2000 and 2006, or if we are comparing Australia's results to all countries.

"It is of importance not to talk about falls in the rankings without knowing the increasing number of countries participating in PISA … Obviously this will have an impact on where Australia will be on the ranking."

Sam Sellar, professor of education policy at the University of South Australia, also raised issues with ranking states among other countries.

"In Australia, we oversample at state and territory level to enable comparisons between jurisdictions," he said. 

"Technically, this does enable scores in NSW, for example, to be compared with country-level scores.

"However, country-level scores mask significant within-country differences. For example, the NSW 2018 mathematics score of 489 is less than Canada's score of 518 but the same as Manitoba's score of 489."

On comparing NSW internationally, a Labor representative said: "We live in a globalised world, and using NSW's score in an international ranking helps contextualise where NSW students compare with children from other countries. This approach is used by governments right across Australia."

The Verdict

The claim that education outcomes in NSW have been declining over the past decade according to an international assessment program is misleading.

While NSW's PISA scores have fallen over the last 10 years, Mr Minns omits important context that results also declined when Labor was last in power. 

Experts also raised several potential issues with using the PISA results to support the claim. Notably delays in the impacts of education policy on results and the fluctuation in the numbers of participants in the tests over the 18 years.

Misleading – The claim is accurate in parts but information has also been presented incorrectly, out of context or omitted.

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