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One in four students in OECD countries are unable to complete even the most basic reading tasks, meaning they are likely to struggle to find their way through life in an increasingly volatile, digital world. This is one of the findings of the OECD’s latest PISA global education test, which evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems.
The OECD’s PISA 2018 tested around 600,000 15-year-old students in 79 countries and economies on reading, science and mathematics. The main focus was on reading, with most students doing the test on computers.
Most countries, particularly in the developed world, have seen little improvement in their performances over the past decade, even though spending on schooling increased by 15% over the same period. In reading, Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China), together with Singapore, scored significantly higher than other countries. The top OECD countries were Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland.
“Without the right education, young people will languish on the margins of society, unable to deal with the challenges of the future world of work, and inequality will continue to rise,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report in Paris at the start of a two-day conference on the future of education. “Every dollar spent on education generates a huge return in terms of social and economic progress and is the foundation of an inclusive, prosperous future for all.”
The share of students with only very basic reading skills highlights the challenge countries, including those in the developed world, face in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 (SDGs), particularly in relation to “ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all” (SDG 4). The share of low-performers, both girls and boys, also increased on average between 2018 and 2009, the last time reading was the main focus of PISA.
Student well-being is also an increasing issue; about two out of three students in OECD countries reported being happy with their lives, although the share of satisfied students fell by 5 percentage points between 2015 and 2018. And in almost every country, girls were more afraid of failing than boys and the gap was largest among top performers. One in four students also reported being bullied at least a few times a month across OECD countries.
Around 1 in 10 students across OECD countries, and 1 in 4 in Singapore, perform at the highest levels in reading. However, the gap between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students is stark: the reading level of the richest 10% of students in OECD countries is around three years ahead of the poorest 10%. In France, Germany, Hungary and Israel, the gap is four years.
Yet some countries have shown an impressive improvement over the past few years. Portugal has advanced to the level of most OECD countries, despite being hit hard by the financial crisis. Sweden has improved across all three subjects since 2012, reversing earlier declines. Turkey has also progressed while at the same time doubling the share of 15-year-olds in school.
The latest PISA findings also reveal the extent to which digital technologies are transforming the world outside of school. More students today consider reading a waste of time (+ 5 percentage points) and fewer boys and girls read for pleasure (- 5 percentage points) than their counterparts did in 2009. They also spend about 3 hours outside of school online on weekdays, an increase of an hour since 2012, and 3.5 hours on weekends.
Other key findings include:
Students’ performance in science and maths
Around one in four students in OECD countries, on average, do not attain the basic level of science (22%) or maths (24%). This means that they cannot, for example, convert a price into a different currency.
About one in six students (16.5%) in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China), and one in seven in Singapore (13.8%), perform at the highest level in maths. This compares to only 2.4% in OECD countries.
Equity in education
Students performed better than the OECD average in 11 countries and economies, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Korea, Norway and the United Kingdom, while the relationship between reading performance and socio-economic status was weakest. This means that these countries have the most equitable systems where students can flourish, regardless of their background.
Principals of disadvantaged schools in 45 countries and economies were much more likely to report that a lack of education staff affected their teaching standards. In 42, a lack of educational material and poor infrastructure was also a key factor in limiting success in the classroom.
On average across OECD countries, 13% of students in 2018 had an immigrant background, up from 10% in 2009. Immigrant students performed on average less well in reading, by around one year of schooling. Yet in countries including Australia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, immigrant students scored higher or at least the same as their non-immigrant peers.
Girls significantly outperformed boys in reading on average across OECD countries, by the equivalent of nearly a year of schooling. Across the world, the narrowest gaps were in Argentina, Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China), Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Peru. Boys overall did slightly better than girls in maths but less well in science.
Girls and boys have very different career expectations. More than one in four high-performing boys reported they expect to work as an engineer or scientist compared with fewer than one in six high-performing girls. Almost one in three high-performing girls, but only one in eight high-performing boys, said they expect to work as a health professional.
The report, together with country analysis, summaries and data, is available at www.oecd.org/pisa