Class progress

How do our young students perform at school compared with their peers in other countries? Are they ready and equipped to take on the world of tomorrow? The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which surveys competence among 15 year olds around the world, gives ground for encouragement. 

More than just a ranking, PISA helps educators, policymakers and parents to form a clear picture of the many social, economic and cultural factors that help determine school performance.

The performance level of 15-year-old school pupils taking the 2012 OECD PISA test has risen slightly since the first test was conducted in 2000. Indeed, of the 64 countries and economies with comparable data, some 40 of them improved their average performance in at least one subject.

The excellent performance of students in Asia was particularly striking. Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China and Singapore lead the field this time in all three PISA tests of mathematics, reading and science. Korea, which came second in 2009, remains in a strong position, despite slipping a few notches back, while Japan showed particular prowess among OECD countries for reading. What is the secret of these strong performances? According to Andreas Schleicher, a strong commitment to 21st century learning and investment in teachers are both important factors (see page 22).

But what about Finland? It was in the top five in 2009, but slipped back to 12th place in maths in 2012, suggesting that the quality of particular cohorts is also a factor to take into account. In Europe strong performances were delivered by Switzerland and Estonia too, whereas larger economies, such as France and the UK, struggled to keep up with the average. The US also failed to impress.

Particularly striking in large developed countries is the problem of widening inequality, as low performers lag further behind strong performers. This may reflect complex social issues, including migration, though as these countries seek to make their education systems fit for purpose, for inspiration they would do well to look at the Netherlands, which performed strongly on all fronts.

Click to enlarge

Some country snapshots

Shanghai shines in mathematics
Students in Shanghai-China topped the PISA 2012 rankings in mathematics, continuing their strong showing from PISA 2009. They also took top honours in reading and science among both OECD countries and non-OECD countries and economies. The Shanghai students’ mean score in mathematics was the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above the OECD average.

Japan strong in reading
Among OECD countries, Japan had the highest score for reading, followed very closely by Korea. In Europe, Finland, Ireland and Poland led in reading, while Canada was the strongest performer in the Americas. Japan was also the top OECD performer in science.

French inequality widens
The French pupils performed worse in mathematics than they did in 2003, and now score about average, despite being traditionally above it. One reason is that low performers this time did worse than before. A worrying trend for France is that those from well-off backgrounds tended to do better, whereas those from poorer backgrounds did worse than in 2003. France’s education minister, Vincent Peillon, sees taking care of pupils with the greatest difficulties as a key challenge for education reform.

Germany makes progress
For the first time, students in Germany performed above the OECD average in all areas. Germany, next to Mexico and Turkey, is the only country that has managed both to improve its results in mathematics and to narrow inequalities in education since 2003, thanks to strong performances at the lower end of the spectrum. There are now far fewer students who do not attain the most basic skills than a few years ago.

Poland’s low performers improve
Poland saw the proportion of low-performing students in mathematics fall by 8 percentage points to around 14% in 2012– that’s below the OECD average of around 20%. Students who fail to master basic skills are likely to be held back throughout their lives; national economies, too, may suffer when large numbers of workers lack basic skills.

Brazil raises its performance
Brazil is one of a handful of economies that have seen notable improvement in student performance. Its mean score in mathematics rose by 35 points between the PISA 2003 and 2012 rounds, just short of the equivalent of a full year of schooling, or 41 points. Among other economies that took part in the 2003 and 2012 rounds, 25 saw their performance in mathematics improve, 25 saw no change and 14 deteriorated. 

Overall trends

Boys do better in maths, girls in reading
Boys generally outperform girls in maths, and the gap is most pronounced in Colombia. By contrast, girls outperform boys in reading and there’s no real gap in science. But despite the stereotypes, girls did at least as well as boys in maths in 28 of the economies that took part in PISA 2012.

Performances reflect social inequality–
Across OECD countries, students from better-off families scored the equivalent of almost a full year of schooling ahead of less-advantaged students. But some OECD countries, such as Australia, manage to minimise this advantage while still delivering a strong overall performance.

–but socio-economic barriers can be overcome
Around 6.5% of students in OECD countries are “resilient”–in other words, they beat the socio-economic odds against them and exceed expectations. In Hong Kong-China and a number of other East Asian economies, the proportion of resilient students is even higher–at least half of all socially disadvantaged students.

Stratified school systems are less efficient
Stratification in school systems, which is the result of policies like grade repetition and selecting students at a young age for different “tracks” or types of schools, is negatively related to equity; students in highly stratified systems tend to be less motivated than those in less-stratified systems.

Migrants’ disadvantage is shrinking
Between 2003 and 2012, the share of students with an immigrant background in OECD countries rose 3 percentage points to 12%. At the same time, their performance disadvantage compared to non-immigrant students shrank. Canada, which has a large immigrant population, performs above the OECD average.

Student attitudes matter
Mexico is the OECD country with the highest proportion of students who say they feel happy in school. Across all economies, most students report feeling that they belong at school, although the proportion is higher (85%) among students from advantaged families than among those from disadvantaged families (78%).

OECD (2013), PISA 2012 results: What Students Know and Can Do, OECD publishing.

For OECD PISA results and key findings, see

For more on PISA 2012, including country-related content and video streams:  

Explore the performance of individual countries with the data visualisation map:

© OECD Observer No 297, Q4 2013

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