Science rocks

PISA story
OECD Observer

Finland took the number one spot in the OECD’s PISA 2006 survey, a comprehensive and much-quoted international yardstick of secondary school student performance. Finland was followed by Hong Kong- China, Canada, Chinese Taipei, Estonia, Japan and New Zealand. Australia, the Netherlands, Korea, Germany, the UK, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium and Ireland also scored above the OECD average. Mexico finished last among OECD countries.

After focusing on reading skills in 2000 and on mathematics in 2003–Finland was among the brightest on these occasions, too–PISA 2006 updates these tests, and turns its attention to science. It examined more than 400,000 15-yearold students in 57 countries (together making up some 90% of world GDP) on both their general scientific knowledge and their ability to apply that knowledge to everyday problems and challenges. The tests involved questions on a wide range of topics, from greenhouse gases to the benefits of exercise and healthy eating. Take this question:

The temperature in the Grand Canyon ranges from below 0o C to over 40o C. Although it is a desert area, cracks in the rocks sometimes contain water. How do these temperature changes and the water in rock cracks help to speed up the breakdown of rocks? A. Freezing water dissolves warm rocks. B. Water cements rocks together. C. Ice smoothes the surface of rocks. D. Freezing water expands in the rock cracks.

While 67.6% of students got the correct answer (which is D), the future of science is nonetheless a matter of some concern in many countries. Although 93% of students acknowledged the importance of science, only 37% saw it as a potential career (see our book review, page 38). Students who performed better in science showed greater awareness of environmental issues, but were also more pessimistic, with fewer than one in six believing that problems such as air pollution and nuclear waste disposal would improve over the next 20 years.

In Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan and New Zealand, at least one in seven students reached the top two levels of scientific literacy. In Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and Turkey, in contrast, the proportion was lower than one in 20.

As for reading tests, the five countries which scored highest were Korea, in first place, followed by Finland, Hong Kong-China, Canada and Ireland. In maths, Finland once again occupies top spot, followed by Korea, Hong Kong- China, Azerbaijan and Canada. Based on this, the overall pattern is hardly a surprise, with Finland, Hong Kong- China and Canada coming in the top five on all three tests.

Although several countries have improved their rankings since 2000, there has been little progress on PISA test results for the OECD as a whole. Yet, expenditure on education in OECD countries has risen by 39% on average between 1995 and 2004.

Students who scored well on PISA tended to come from wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds. At the same time, higher GDP per head did not deliver best performances in some countries. The survey found that students in schools with high levels of autonomy, accountability and competition also fared better than the average, regardless of background. Higher spending per student is a key part of the mix, though the highest spenders were not necessarily among the best performers. On the other hand, Mexico, one of the OECD’s least wealthy member countries, finished last among OECD countries in all three tests. DK

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©OECD Observer No. 264/265, December 2007-January 2008

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