04/12/2001 - Finland is the top performing country in a new OECD survey of reading literacy among 15-year-olds, while Japan and Korea are the top performers in mathematics and science. All three countries are also among the countries with the narrowest gap between the highest and lowest performers, based on tests involving 265,000 high-school students in 32 countries.
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
assesses the extent to which students approaching the end of compulsory education have the knowledge and skills needed for full participation in society. Data published today are based on a first round of assessments that took place last year. Similar reviews at three-yearly intervals in the future will make PISA the most comprehensive international survey of student knowledge and skills.
In addition to covering student performance, PISA also reviews student attitudes and approaches to learning. The result is a series of internationally comparable indicators that give insights into the factors influencing the development of literacy skills at home and at school and how these factors interact. These indicators provide policy makers with a unique benchmarking tool on which to base future policy choices.
Among other findings, the survey shows that:
- On average, 10% of 15-year-olds in the world's most developed countries have top-level reading literacy skills, being able to understand complex texts, evaluate information and build hypotheses, and draw on specialised knowledge. In Australia, Canada, Finland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, the figure is between 15% and 19% (see Figure below*).
- At the other end of the scale, an average of 6% of 15-year-olds -- and in some countries more than twice that proportion -- fall below Level 1, PISA's lowest level of reading proficiency. A further 12% only make it to Level 1, which requires students to complete very basic reading tasks such as locating a simple piece of information or identifying the main theme of a text. Young people in these categories show serious gaps in the foundation of literacy skills needed for further learning, impairing their ability to benefit from further educational opportunities at school or beyond.
- Japan and Korea are the top performers in mathematical and scientific literacy -- defined as the capacity of students to use the mathematical and scientific knowledge acquired in school in a world that increasingly relies on technological and scientific advances.
- High overall performance can go hand in hand with an equitable distribution of results. Performance averages in the three subject areas show some countries - notably Finland, Japan and Korea - maintaining a comparatively narrow gap between the highest and poorest performers while still attaining high average levels. In Germany, one of the countries with the largest gap between the highest and lowest performing students, the average performance is below the OECD average, with much of this variation accounted for by differences between schools. Overall, variations in student performance and the extent of variation
between schools tend to be greater in countries that differentiate at an early age between types of programme and school
- In many countries, boys are falling far behind in reading literacy. In every country surveyed, girls were, on average, better readers than boys. Significant differences between countries reflect the varying abilities of countries to provide a learning environment or broader context that benefits both genders equally. In all participating countries, males are more likely than females to be at Level 1 or below in reading - in the case of Finland, the best performing country, over three times as likely.
- In about half of the countries surveyed, boys perform better than girls in mathematical literacy. Much of this difference is attributable to the fact that there are more boys among the better performers, while the number of low performing boys is equal to that of low performing girls. In the case of scientific literacy, differences are smaller and tend to even out among countries.
- About half of 15-year-olds consider mathematics important in a general sense, but only a few see mathematics as important for their future.
- Students show wide differences in their general engagement with school, including big variations in attitudes to reading and even more so to mathematics. In 20 out of 28 countries, more than one in four students consider school a place where they do not want to go. The proportion of reluctant students is highest in Belgium (42%), followed by Canada (37%), France (37%), Hungary (38%), Italy (38%) and the United States (35%). The relationship between student attitudes and results is complex and some countries perform well despite below-average attitudes. Nonetheless, a positive disposition to learning is an important outcome of schooling in itself and therefore merits attention.
- Higher average spending per student tends to be associated with higher average performance in the three areas of literacy, but does not guarantee it.
- Students from privileged social backgrounds tend to perform better, but differences are less pronounced in some countries than in others. Canada, Finland, Iceland, Japan, Korea and Sweden display above-average levels of reading literacy and a below-average impact of social background on student performance. In the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Luxembourg, it's the other way round.
- Results vary widely across schools but there are countries in which the large majority of schools achieve high standards. In countries where differences among schools are widest, a significant part of these differences tends to be associated with the socio-economic composition of schools.
- There is no single factor that explains why some schools or countries have better results but there are some school policies and practices that tend to be associated with success. For example, the extent to which students use school resources, to which specialist teachers are available, and to which schools have a role in decision-making tend to have a positive impact. Performance also tends to be better where teachers have high expectations and morale, and where classroom relations and discipline are good.
Journalists may obtain a copy of the report from the
OECD's Media Relations Division.
This report is on sale through the
For further information, journalists are invited to contact
in the OECD's Educational Statistics Division (Tel:  1 45 24 93 66). For further information on PISA see also
"Knowledge and Skills for Life. First Results from PISA 2000"
322 pages, OECD, Paris 2001
\?#128;21; FF137.75; US$19; DM41.07
ISBN 92-64-19671-4 (96 01 14 1)
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* The figure shows the percentage of students in each country performing at each of the five levels of reading literacy. Level 5 is the highest, Level 1 the lowest. The table shows the average performance of students in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy.
Since many countries were close in the estimated average and because the results are based on samples in each country, it is often not possible to say for sure which of two countries had a higher average score. The table therefore also shows the standard error and the range of each country's possible performance, in terms of ranking out of 32 (these are based on a 95% level of certainty).
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