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PISA Results Show Room for Improvement

By Tiffani Razavi, TIE Staff Writer
PISA Results Show Room for Improvement

Over half a million students from 72 countries took the internationally agreed two-hour Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2015. Conducted every three years by the OECD, PISA is an international survey that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. The 2015 PISA assessment focused on science, though students were also assessed in mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving, and financial literacy. The OECD released the findings of this latest assessment in December 2016, identifying various ongoing trends and new developments.
As in previous years, the highest test scores were reported from Asian countries, such as Singapore, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, with Singapore leading across all subjects. Canadian scores lag slightly behind, followed by most European countries, the U.S., and the Middle East. Overall, scores in reading and science have not shifted significantly since the last assessment in 2012, but there has been a general decline in performance when it comes to mathematics.
In relation to student performance in science and attitudes toward this field, in the majority of countries with comparable data no change was noted since the last science-focused assessment conducted in 2006, although average performance in this area improved in Colombia, Israel, Macao (China), Portugal, Qatar, and Romania. The data indicate that 8 percent of students across OECD countries (compared with 24 percent of students in Singapore) are categorized as top performers (proficient at Level 5 or 6 of the assessment).
The OECD report describes students at these levels as “sufficiently skilled in and knowledgeable about science to creatively and autonomously apply their knowledge and skills to a wide variety of situations, including unfamiliar ones.” Some 20 percent of students scored below Level 2, considered baseline proficiency in science, and were described in the report as having the ability to “draw on their knowledge of basic science content and procedures to identify an appropriate explanation, interpret data, and identify the question being addressed in a simple experiment.” This is a level all students are expected to attain by the time they leave compulsory education.
The 2015 data show that the gender gap in science performance is small, on average, and is gradually closing. In 21 countries—many Eastern European, but also in the U.A.E., Qatar, and Jordan—girls now have significantly higher scores than boys. The results indicate that the general tendency for boys to excel in science relative to their female peers is specifically characteristic of top students (Finland is the only country in which girls are more likely to be top performers than boys). In fact, the trend is reversed among students with lower scores.
Boys generally outperformed girls when explaining phenomena scientifically, while girls were stronger in the interpretation of data and experimental design and evaluation. Twenty-five percent of boys and 24 percent of girls reported that they expect to work in a science-related occupation, although there are gender differences in the nature of those expectations; girls are more likely to envisage careers in health, and in almost all countries boys more than girls see themselves entering the field of information and communications technologies (ICT).
Regarding reading and mathematics, the assessment results show that about 20 percent of students do not attain the baseline level of proficiency in reading, a figure that has remained stable since 2009. The test continues to place girls ahead of boys in all countries, without exception, although the gender gap narrowed by 12 points between 2009 and 2015 through an improvement in boys’ performance, particularly among the highest-achieving boys, and a decline in girls’ performance, particularly among the lowest-achieving girls.
In mathematics, average performance has declined, including in the U.S. The highest proportion of top-performing students (more than one in four) are in Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (China), Hong Kong (China), Singapore, and Chinese Taipei. There is a tendency for boys to outperform girls in mathematics, though this is not the case globally, and in eight countries, including Qatar and Jordan, girls scored higher than boys.
Based on these findings, the OECD report highlights the need for all countries to press ahead to achieve “inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (Sustainable Development Goal 4), while also identifying some of the policies that characterize more successful educational systems, including: high and universal expectations for all students; a strong focus on great teaching; resources targeted at struggling students and schools; and a commitment to coherent, long-term strategies.
Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, concludes that the results from PISA 2015 show that “every country has room for improvement, even the top performers. With high levels of youth unemployment, rising inequality, a significant gender gap, and an urgent need to boost inclusive growth in many countries, we have no time to lose in providing the best education possible for all students.”

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