International tests and improving education: lessons from PISA

This month, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published the 2018 results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). What does it indicate and how is it relevant for schools and teachers?

What is PISA?

The survey measures the reading, mathematics and science performance of 15-year-old pupils around the world every three years. Over half a million 15-year-olds from 79 countries, including all EU Member States, took the PISA test in 2018, with a special focus on reading.

You can read a simple overview of the results in the publication PISA 2018: Insights and Interpretations.

How is PISA useful to people working in European school education?

As part of their planned European cooperation in education and training, Member States aim to reduce the number of underachieving pupils in the EU to below 15% by 2020. The PISA results help to indicate how close the EU is to meeting its own benchmark for underachievement.

Over the past decade, in the EU as a whole, underachievement has increased in science and reading and remained stable in mathematics. More than one in five 15-year-olds in the EU cannot complete the basic level tasks that were tested.

On the other hand, some EU countries have improved their performance over time, showing that reducing underachievement is possible.

What can we learn apart from performance in reading, mathematics and science?

PISA makes it possible to analyse performance by gender, socio-economic status and migrant background. It also contains other contextual information and pupils’ attitudes.

The 2018 results show a sizeable gender gap in reading, where girls outperform boys everywhere in the EU, and a performance gap between pupils in general education and those in vocational programmes.

Socio-economic background strongly affects pupils’ performance and their academic expectations in most EU countries. The school climate is also important for pupil well-being and performance. In some countries, more than one in three pupils feels they do not belong at school. In a majority of EU countries, more than one in five report that they are bullied at least a few times a month. Both of these elements affect pupils’ reading performance.

This may give schools and local stakeholders, as well as policymakers, particular focus for future exploration and action.