She said about 400,000 Australian students a year –10 per cent – needed extra support or were below the international benchmark in maths. Only about 20 per cent of those who fall behind catch up.

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In Screening that Counts: Why Australia needs universal early numeracy screening, Norris said school systems throughout the country were carrying out inefficient and haphazard early assessments of maths skills.

She said early maths screening should be carried out twice yearly and focus on robust models of “number sense”, which encompasses numbers (including saying, reading, and writing them); number relations (comparing and understanding them in terms of “more” and “less”); and number operations (understanding addition and subtraction).

Ultimately, Norris envisages screening being carried out in every year of schooling, as maths concepts progress through multiplication, algebra and more complicated concepts.

Calls for a universal numeracy screening test were first made by a national advisory panel in 2017. More recently, an expert panel informing the next National School Reform Agreement recommended adopting a nationally consistent numeracy screening check by the end of 2028.

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“Sadly, over the course of these six years, little change in practice and supporting policy has been implemented,” Norris said in the report. “As a result, current tools available to Australian schools are not designed for, or well suited to, universal screening procedures.”

Mathematics achievement has implications for life beyond formal schooling.

“Adults with poor numeracy have lower rates of employment, income, higher rates of homelessness and poorer health outcomes,” Norris said.

“It is estimated that around one in five adults do not have the numeracy levels required to successfully complete daily tasks such as reading a petrol gauge or managing a household budget.”

Norris said early identification of struggling students and providing high-quality help made it possible to alter patterns of underachievement. But teachers needed the tools to do so in efficient and accurate ways.

“We know a great deal now about what predicts early numeracy success and what predicts, by extension, numeracy failure,” she said.

“It’s time to start getting some of these reliable tools into the hands of teachers so they can actually be intervening and offering the support that children need as early as possible.”

Grattan Institute education program director Jordana Hunter said numeracy performance had flatlined in the past decade and improving primary school outcomes was key to lifting achievement for older students.

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Hunter, who served on the National School Reform Agreement expert panel, said that without robust universal screening of early numeracy skills, it was too easy to miss children who needed intervention.

“If we don’t adopt universal screening, we will continue to take a ‘hit or miss’ approach to identifying students who need extra help,” she said.

Dr Katherin Cartwright, Mathematical Association of NSW president and a former primary school teacher, agreed there needed to be a greater focus on early intervention.

But she said there were many factors at play, including lack of access to free preschool, students’ backgrounds and even their sense of belonging at school.

“I don’t think there is a lack in systems, schools and teachers working to support students in developing proficiency in numeracy, but there is a lack of consistency Australia-wide and access to national data for our younger students,” she said.

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare said he had “made it clear” that the next National School Reform Agreement must tie funding to reforms that “help children catch up, keep up and finish school”.

With Lucy Carroll

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