The triennial publication of the PISA test’s findings is the collective-anxiety-inducing results day for OECD governments. One likes to think of presidents and education ministers trembling as nervously as school pupils opening the brown envelope that contains their exam grades. For this is the single most widely accepted measure of relative education performance in the world.
Not that the test is without controversy. Criticism often focuses on its simplicity, using mathematics performance alone as a key indicator, inscrutability, in that the way in which results are processed is not openly available, and lack of scientific accuracy. The fact that billions in education spending hang on this “snapshot” of the abilities of 15-year-olds worldwide has also been a cause for concern.
What the test does do is force governments to look outside of their borders for solutions. The stars of PISA are the envy of the world, while countries that do unexpectedly badly will look to them for the inspiration for an education overhaul.
Back in 2001, the first ever PISA test caused a crisis of self-confidence in Germany. The country had considered itself a world leader in education; but when the test ranked it at the lower end of the scale, especially in literacy, the governments was forced to a fundamental rethink of education policy.
So who are the leaders this year, and what trends can we see?
Since 2001, Germany has risen to become one of the leaders in Europe, alongside Poland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Estonia and Finland. Finland, however, the erstwhile champion in the PISA tests, has slipped down in the rankings.
By far in the lead, once again, are the powerhouses of Asia – Shanghai, Japan, Korea, Macau, Hong Kong and Taipei. This has been attributed to many cultural factors – amongst them, those countries’ long learning tradition, and the esteem in which they hold members of the teaching profession.
A newer element of the PISA test is the regional analysis, providing a more detailed look into the academic differences within countries. While Italy as a whole was ranked below the OECD average for Mathematics, the regions of Trento, Friuli Venezia Guilia and Veneto were among the top regions in the world.
Equally important is a characteristic shared by many of the higher scorers – Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Liechtenstein and Macao: namely, the weak relationship between economic status and performance that is a sign of social equality.
Meanwhile it must not be forgotten that Indonesian, Albanian and Peruvian 15-year-olds, though on the lower end of the academic rankings, were reportedly the happiest at school – while Korea, conversely, was right at the bottom of the wellbeing tables.
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See the PISA results here