OECD Secretary-General

Launch of PISA 2018 Results


Remarks by Angel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General

3 December 2019 - Paris, France

(As prepared for delivery) 




Dear Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am pleased to launch the latest results of the OECD’s flagship Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Over the past two decades, this triennial international survey has become the world’s premier yardstick for benchmarking quality, equity and efficiency in learning outcomes across countries. Today, the OECD’s PISA team is spread all over the world, from Panama and the Philippines, to Portugal and Indonesia, presenting national-level results.

In 2018, 600,000 students – representing 32 million students in 79 countries and economies – sat a two-hour test on reading, science and mathematics [Slide 2 and 3]. Today, the OECD will release Volumes One, Two and Three of PISA 2018: “What Students Know and Can Do”; “Where All Students Can Succeed”; and “What School Life Means for Students’ Lives”.

Let’s take a look at some key findings.


First, students’ performance in reading, mathematics and science. 

The main focus of this PISA cycle was on reading literacy in a digital environment, including students’ ability to navigate complex text and to integrate information across multiple sources. These skills will be key to participating in the labour market, undertaking further education, and engaging in social and civic life in the 21st century.

Our PISA 2018 assessment shows that 15-year-old students in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang outperformed – by a large margin – their peers from all of the other participating education systems in mathematics and science, and score on par in reading with Singapore. Among OECD countries, Canada, Estonia, Finland and Ireland were the highest performers in reading.

Today, reading no longer centres on extracting information; it is about constructing knowledge, thinking critically and making well-founded judgements. But PISA findings show that fewer than one in 10 students in OECD countries were able to distinguish between fact and opinion. In fact, only in the four jurisdictions of China, as well as in Canada, Estonia, Finland, Singapore and the United States, did more than one in seven students demonstrate this level of reading proficiency. These results are worrisome.

In the past, students could find clear answers to their questions in government-approved textbooks, and could generally trust those answers to be true. Today, students need strong foundation skills to navigate instant information flows online and to differentiate between fact and fiction, right and wrong. In today’s age of “fake news”, these foundation skills are critical.

Turning to mathematics and science, our PISA results show that most students in OECD countries have acquired at least a baseline level of proficiency.


  • In mathematics, 76% of students in OECD countries can – at a minimum – represent mathematically a simple situation from their everyday life. However, in 24 countries and economies, more than 50% of students scored below this level of proficiency.

  • In science, 78% of students in OECD countries can – at a minimum – recognise the correct explanation for familiar scientific phenomena and identify a scientifically valid conclusion.


  • It is worth noting that boys and girls have very different expectations for their future occupation, even when they excel in PISA mathematics or science. More than 26% of boys reported that they expect to work as an engineer or science professional when they are 30 years old, compared to only 15% of girls. By contrast, around 30% of high-performing girls, but only around 12% of boys with the same proficiency, reported that they expect to work as health professionals. Countries must empower girls and boys to challenge gender stereotypes in occupational choice, building on the success of initiatives such as NiñaSTEM Pueden in Mexico.

Second, trends in performance. While progress in educational outcomes has been very disappointing, some countries show that rapid improvement is possible! Among OECD countries, Estonia has advanced steadily to the top, even though its expenditure per student remains about 30% below the OECD average. We also see remarkable improvements in some countries that perform well below the OECD average, including Albania, Moldova, Peru and Qatar.

Five countries – Albania, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Uruguay – also significantly increased enrolment rates in secondary education over their participation in PISA. In addition, they maintained, or improved, their mean reading, mathematics and science performance. These outcomes confirm that the quality of education does not have to be sacrificed when increasing access to schooling.

Some countries were able to move to a more positive trajectory in recent years after a period of stagnation or decline. Sweden, for example, showed an improving trend in all three subjects between 2012 and 2018, reversing earlier declines in mean performance. Argentina, the Czech Republic and Ireland saw recent improvements in reading; Denmark, Ireland, Jordan, Slovenia and the United Kingdom in mathematics; and Jordan and Montenegro in science. So, it can be done!

Third, equity. Greater equity in educational opportunities is another imperative for a modern education system, as it can help break inequality trends and facilitate social mobility. This is not only a question of social justice; it is also a way to use resources more effectively, increase the supply of skills that fuel economic growth, and promote social cohesion.

PISA shows that the impact of social and economic background on success in education varies greatly across countries. In some countries, the gap in reading performance between the 10% most socioeconomically advantaged and the 10% most disadvantaged students was the equivalent of well over four years of schooling!

Inequity in education is an important concern for policymakers, as it amplifies inequalities of income and opportunities. Without access to affordable, high-quality education, people at the bottom of the income distribution are left to languish on the margins of society, with little hope for upward mobility. This means that many potential talents remain untapped or under-developed. At the opposite end, access to quality education and economic resources may translate into persistent rents for a privileged few. This opportunity hoarding is bad for society and bad for the economy. Low upward mobility may reduce democratic participation and strengthen the political extremism and populism that we see today in so many countries. Indeed, the OECD’s report, A Broken Social Elevator, shows that low mobility is associated with a stronger attraction to extreme or radical voting behaviour, especially when trust in political institutions is weak. Equity in education is the cornerstone of fair societies. It’s the motor we must fix to make our social elevator work well again!

Some countries show that equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive. In Australia, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Korea, Macao (China), Norway and the United Kingdom average performance was higher than the OECD average, while the relationship between socioeconomic status and reading performance was weaker than the OECD average. Moreover, one in ten disadvantaged students was able to score in the top quarter of reading performance in their economy, indicating that poverty is not destiny [Slide 9].
PISA data also show that the world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated nations, and poor and badly educated ones. Income levels among countries that score similarly in PISA vary widely.

Finally, students’ well-being. PISA is the first and only international large-scale assessment to measure students’ well being and to relate these indicators to students’ achievement across a large number of education systems.

Measuring the well-being of 15-year-old students – the target PISA population – is very important. At this age, students are in a key transition phase of physical and emotional development. Teenage well-being also matters because today’s adolescents are tomorrow’s workforce; how they fare today will thus shape their countries’ performance in an increasingly competitive and interconnected global economy. Actually, when it comes to social and emotional outcomes, PISA shows that the top performing Chinese provinces are among the education systems with most room for improvement.

Disturbingly, in one-third of countries and economies that participated in PISA 2018, including OECD countries such as Greece, Mexico and Poland, more than one in two students said that their intelligence was something they couldn’t change very much [Slide 12]. These students are unlikely to make investments in themselves that are needed to succeed in school and in life. A growth mind-set seems consistently associated with students’ motivation to master tasks, set learning goals and perceive the value of school.

It is tempting to conclude that better performance in school translates into higher anxiety about schoolwork, thus undermining students’ well-being. However, countries such as Belgium, Estonia, Finland and Germany show that good performance and a strong sense of well-being can be achieved simultaneously; they set important examples for others.

So where do we go from here? 

While there is no perfect recipe for success in education policy, our PISA 2018 results provide us with major directions to foster quality, equity and efficiency for future-ready education systems. Let’s look at some key lessons.


  • PISA data show that there is a positive relationship between investment in education and average performance, but only up to a certain level. Efficient use of limited resources matters more after this threshold is reached.

  • Attracting the most qualified teachers to the most difficult classrooms remains a major challenge for most countries. PISA results show that in several countries, more teachers are allocated to disadvantaged schools than advantaged schools, but these teachers tend to be less experienced and hold lower qualifications. Our analysis shows that it is not as simple as paying teachers who work in disadvantaged schools more. We need holistic approaches in which teachers feel supported in their professional and personal lives.

  • Students’ well-being is crucial for mental health, learning and, ultimately, life outcomes. Policymakers, principals and teachers need to devise effective policies and practices to limit harmful practices, such as bullying, and to foster a positive climate in schools.


Ladies and Gentlemen:

PISA is a powerful tool that can guide our efforts to make sure our education systems are future-fit. Today, I have presented only a taste of our latest results, and I urge you all to review and reflect on the volumes we have released today. Count on the OECD’s continued support as we strive, together, to design, develop and deliver better education policies for better lives. Thank you.



See also:

OECD work on Education


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