Pisa tests: What do we know now?

Pupils in Singapore with tablet computers Singapore is among the high-achieving countries at the top of global tests

The results of the latest Pisa tests, launched by the OECD this week, are going to be analysed disputed and selectively quoted for the next three years.

But what have we found about the world's education systems, from these tests taken by 15 year olds in maths, reading and science?

The coverage has been dominated by the rise and fall in national rankings, or in the UK's case getting stuck in the middle.

But there were also overarching findings from this mammoth trawl of data, based on 500,000 teenagers in 65 countries and education systems.

For instance, behaviour in class is better now than three years ago.

And among better-off countries, the amount spent on education does not seem to have any clear link with improving results.

But there were other more specific lessons.

East Asia's success not 'cultural'

The runaway success story has been the achievement of a clutch of Asian education systems. But results saw the OECD's Andreas Schleicher challenging any stereotypes about some places having an inherent "culture" of education.

Results in Shanghai and Vietnam are much better than three years ago, he says, but the "culture" hasn't changed.

The improvements reflect a deliberate policy of ensuring that a high proportion of pupils will succeed.

This also applies in other parts of the world. Poland has been transformed into one of the best school performers in Europe and the OECD argues this reflects an active policy of change and not any inherent quality of its culture. The implication of this is that other countries could follow their example.

High results or happy children?

Is it a good thing to be successful at any price? South Korea might be at the top end of the performance tables, but it's at the very bottom in how happy pupils are in school. Punishingly long hours of study, high pressure tests and extra lessons out of school might deliver high results. But is that the system to pursue?

In contrast, Peru, Albania and Indonesia, among the lowest test performers, have the highest proportions of children who like being at school.

South Korean pupils taking exam The tests raise big questions about the balance of happiness and success

And the Pisa study also showed no clear link between parental choice and better standards - but would parents accept a more controlling, centralised system to raise results?

Expect more examination of the relationship between cramming, creativity, choice and happiness.

Irresistible rise of rankings

The impact of Pisa as an international phenomenon could be directly linked to its bold willingness to rank countries. These league tables emerged about the same time as universities first experienced being listed like football clubs. It was an unfamiliar approach, but ranking has spread like ivy over ancient institutions. Everyone stands back and says it's a terrible over-simplification - and then starts planning ways to get higher.

Scandinavian gloom

Seekers after educational excellence once used to head pilgrim-like towards Finland. This was the most quoted example of a high performing school system, even though in many ways it was a very distinctive and individual system. Scandinavia was the education world's sensible successful neighbour.

But Finland has slipped downwards and the gloom has spread across Nordic countries, with Sweden among the biggest fallers. Norway and Denmark are absent from the top end of the tables. Their sluggish performances has been overtaken by countries such as Estonia, Poland and Ireland.

Are regions a better way of measuring results?

The headline results for these tests are about the performance of countries or at least big Chinese regional education systems that are as big as countries, such as Shanghai or Hong Kong.

But this year's results show much more local detail. And it often entirely contradicts the national picture.

For instance, the education system in the United States has been seen as one of the great under-performers, struggling among the below-average stragglers.

Go down to state level and it can be an entirely different story. Massachusetts would be a match for the best European systems. There are similar examples in Italy and Spain. Wales is a long way behind the other parts of the UK.

What this means, the OECD says, is that there are often bigger differences within countries than between countries. And if one region can perform so well, why not the rest of the country?

Boston Massachusetts had results completely unlike the US national score

Hungry newcomers

Education systems are inextricably linked with economies and the ambitions of their people. And the rising stars are those that are pushing up from below, in Asia, South America and eastern Europe. Vietnam, Brazil are Poland are getting the praise for progress, following in the footsteps of Singapore and South Korea.

Baltic states such as Estonia are now more likely to be among the top performers than wealthier western European countries.

Old empires

The great powers of the 20th Century are conspicuous by their absence from the top of these education rankings. The UK, France, Russia, the US, all with very different systems, have collectively shown no sign of a resurgence. They each will have a complicated, entrenched set of legacies. Expect more political introspection and rummaging through the ideas box.

Exam hall Big western countries have lagged despite investment and political initiatives

Rise of global tests

Where is this all heading? Economies, employers, digital technologies and media operate globally across international boundaries.

But education has until recently remained stubbornly inward looking, with national systems only measured against national exams. Pisa has thrown down a challenge on their credibility.

What happens if national exam results are going up when international tests are staying flat? And how can we rely on the accuracy of a sample-based process such as Pisa? More examination of the examinations is lying ahead.

A selection of your comments on the Pisa tests

I am a Chinese, I really don't think Pisa test matters much. I am studying in UK university right now, so it is easy for me to compare these two education systems. Students in Asian countries are more likely to spend more time in school, basically to get high scores in exam in order to stand out among so many people. My past experience in Chinese education system was not that good: arts and PE are generally not valued much, many students just study every day instead of doing their hobbies. What for? I hate this type of education. I am really jealous of the UK students who have so much time to play sports, to learn arts. Both systems need to learn from each other.

Naichen, China

Education is not only about getting a job. The word means 'drawing out' enabling learning and growing and interaction with society to take place for an individual. Do not get driven demented by statistics.

Felicity, Chelmsford

As a product of both the Singaporean and British education systems, and speaking as a graduate in a STEM Subject, my opinion is that there is a culture of complacency in the UK. In Singapore or Hong Kong your child has to be successful to enter university, there is a lot more competition there and many don't make the grade. University in those regions is a saving grace for the family, the fear of family financial failure is greater than fear of exam stress and so people won't give a second thought to providing outside tuition. It all sounds stressful and 'survival of the fittest' but unfortunately that's the way the world works outside the UK's borders.

Damon, Birmingham

Practical tests like PISA with measurable results to benchmark educational systems are a wonderful tool to show which local and regional systems need upgrading. It is disappointing to see British and other poor performers criticize the test instead of working on improvements. We are being by-passed by China. Our children will have a much tougher life than we have had.

Neil, Quebec, Canada

The UK won't get the best out of its education system until the politicians stop tinkering and undermining the teaching profession, think hard about what can be done to improve the whole system, and then have the guts to make radical decisions.

Malcolm, Tewkesbury

I do not see how any test can be culturally neutral. Everything we do and how we approach things is culturally driven. Having watched the news item on education in S. Korea, I would not wish that system on any child, but it reflects the culture of the country to push forward at any cost. It would be useful to look at what happens at university level and in the world of work. I.e. what becomes of these children who have been pressured through school and what happens to the children who do not make the grade. They cannot all be rocket scientists?

Jennifer, Aberystwyth

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