The minister for schools, Dr David Kemp, seized on preliminary results from a survey by the Australian Council for Educational Research to back an earlier call for schools to publish league tables showing the academic results of their students and the destinations of school-leavers.
Dr Kemp said there was an "information black hole" and claimed a cult of secrecy was limiting the ability of schools to improve the academic performance of students because they were not publicly accountable. If schools released details of their students' achievements, parents would be better informed about choosing the best place for their child, he said.
The ACER study compared the reading comprehension skills of 13,000 students in year 9 last year in all states and territories with a similar survey in 1975. The proportion of girls who failed to achieve what the researchers called "basic literacy skills" was 26 per cent in 1975 and 27 per cent 20 years later. For teenage boys, there was a decline of five percentage points in reading comprehension.
But teacher unions and educationists attacked the claims and countered that Dr Kemp was a member of a government which had just cut millions of dollars from federal spending on schools. They also said that the full study would not be completed until next year and that reading comprehension was only one part of literacy.
Brian Cambourne, a professor of education at the University of Wollongong, said, given the increase in the complexity of literacy demands over the past 20 years, the greater number of students staying at school, the rise in the proportion of students from non-English-speaking homes and the decline in government spending on schools since 1975, teachers "had held the literacy line".
"If literacy standards were indexed like costs, wages and pensions are, it would mean something like a 30-40 per cent increase in literacy ability over the past 20 years," he said.
Australian schools may be teaching too many mathematics and science concepts for students to cope successfully, according to the Australian Mathematical Societies Council.
The council is to hold a top-level forum with the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies later this month to seek urgent action by the federal government. The forum will bring together representatives of schools, higher education, government and industry.
Jan Thomas, the council's president, said both groups were bracing themselves for bad news when the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study are released next week.
American schools have been accused of teaching too many mathematics and science concepts in a curriculum described as "a mile wide and an inch deep".
"The mathematics and science we teach in Australia could perhaps be described as three centimetres deep and two kilometres wide," Ms Thomas said. "Maybe we should be teaching less and doing it better."
Federation president Dr Joe Baker said innovative research and development depended on first-rate mathematicians and scientists who could develop the powerful new technologies now available.
"We will only have enough of these people if we have quality education and careers in these areas that are visible and well paid," he said.