Skills beyond school

OECD/UNESCO Study Identifies Regional Disparities in Student Performance


01/07/2003 - Students in Finland are among the world's best in terms of reading literacy, while students in Japan, Hong Kong-China and Korea lead in mathematics and science, according to a newly published survey of 15-year-olds in 43 countries. By contrast, students in several Latin American countries lag seriously behind in all three areas, even after taking account of lower national income levels.

These are some of the conclusions of a new report published jointly by OECD and UNESCO, Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow, based on data gathered in the context of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment ( PISA).

PISA measures how well 15-year-olds are prepared to meet the challenges of today's knowledge societies, by administering tests and background questionnaires to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each participating country. It is the most comprehensive and rigorous international effort to date to both assess student performance and collect data on the student, family and institutional factors that can help explain differences in performance. In this way, it provides policy-makers with a lens through which to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of their education systems.

This latest report compares and analyses data collected in 2002 from 15 mainly middle-income countries and economies - Albania, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Hong Kong-China, Indonesia, Israel, Latvia, Liechtenstein, FYR Macedonia, Peru, Romania, the Russian Federation and Thailand - with data collected in 2000 from 28 of the 30 member countries of the OECD and first published in 2001.

(The OECD member countries are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States. Slovakia joined the OECD in December 2000 and did not participate in the first round of PISA data collection, while data from the Netherlands were collected but not published due to insufficient response rates.)

Among the non-OECD economies, students in Hong Kong-China emerge as star performers, achieving overall scores in reading proficiency equivalent to those of students in the top OECD countries (after Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland). And, along with students in Japan and Korea, they are ahead of the rest, on average, in mathematical and scientific literacy.

On the other hand, students in Latin America are well behind. Peru has the largest proportion of students (80 percent) at Level 1 and below, indicating that students having serious difficulties in using reading as a tool to advance and extend their knowledge and skills in other areas. Brazil and Chile also recorded performances significantly lower than many of the other countries in the study, with about half of their students at Level 1 or below. Other nations with particularly low scores were Albania, Indonesia and FYR Macedonia, where well over half of the students were also unable to complete any more than the simplest reading tasks.

Within countries, according to PISA, the performance gap in reading skills between students from rich and poor families was greatest in Argentina, the United States, Chile, Israel, Portugal, Mexico, Peru and Brazil.

Higher average spending per student tends to be associated with higher average performance in the three areas of literacy, but does not guarantee it. Italy spends about twice as much per student as Korea, but whereas Korea is among the best performing countries in all literacy areas assessed Italy performs significantly below the OECD average.

The report links these trends to the quality of national education systems, which it concludes can be more important to learning achievement than national or individual family wealth. Efficient, well structured education systems, its authors say, can help to overcome many of the socio-economic hurdles that affect children's learning abilities.

"The PISA data show that student background is a consistent source of disparity in learning outcomes in many countries," state the authors. "However, the fact that some countries are able to attain both high average level of literacy performance and small disparities between students from various backgrounds suggests that quality and equity in learning outcomes do not necessarily exist at the expense of each other. On the contrary, the examples of Canada, Finland, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Korea and Sweden show that it is possible to achieve educational quality and equity simultaneously."

The report also points to the relatively high rate of repetition in Latin America. In Brazil, for example, some 25 percent of primary pupils and 15 percent of secondary school students were repeating a grade during the survey year (1999). Around seven percent of secondary students were repeating in Argentina and Peru.

Analysing gender differences in the three learning domains, PISA found that girls generally outperform boys in reading literacy in all countries, while boys tend to score better than girls overall in mathematics, except in Albania. There are fewer differences between the genders in scientific literacy, on the other hand. In another significant gender difference, however, the survey found that in almost all of the countries surveyed, girls have higher expectations regarding their future occupations than boys. Evidence cited in the report suggests that individual students' expectations at age 15 with regard their future career are often a good guide to actual subsequent performance.

Boys' underachievement in reading is closely associated with a lack of engagement. Some 58 percent of boys, compared to 33 percent of girls, said they read only to get the information they need. By contrast, 45 percent of girls but only 30 percent of boys report spending at least 30 minutes a day reading for pleasure.

PISA found that the percentages of girls and boys enrolled in school were fairly similar, and slightly in favour of girls in most of the non-OECD countries. This is encouraging, given that two thirds of the world's 113 million out-of-school children are girls. Higher proportions of boys of secondary school age were attending schools at this level in Bulgaria, Indonesia, FYR Macedonia and Peru.

The survey also confirms the importance of parental education - and particularly the level of educational attainment of pupils' mothers - in children's learning outcomes. In all countries, students whose mothers have completed upper secondary education achieve higher scores in reading, mathematics and scientific literacy than students whose mothers have not done so. The difference is most marked in FYR Macedonia, Bulgaria, Argentina and Albania and least evident in the Asian economies.

For further information, journalists may contact Luisa Constanza, OECD (tel. 33 1 45 24 80 89) or Sue Williams, UNESCO (tel 33 1 45 68 17 06).

See graph: Performance in reading and the impact of family background

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